Why Polyester Fabrics Are So Bad For The Planet
This article is the first in our Culprit Series, where we're unpacking the environmental harms and health risks of popular synthetic fibers.
The fashion industry has a polyester problem. Developed for mass production in the 1940s, polyester is a synthetic, petroleum-based plastic fiber and the third most commonly used plastic globally. And because it’s durable, wrinkle-resistant, and inexpensive to make, the apparel industry is a big fan. In 2020, polyester made up 52 percent of all fibers produced.
Here’s the snag. You can’t make polyester without one of the main fossil fuels causing climate change: petroleum. Nearly 70 million barrels of petroleum are used each year to meet polyester demand. And the production of that petroleum oil is accelerating climate change by introducing toxic greenhouse gasses into our atmosphere and chemicals into our air and water systems.
Polyester manufacturing is also energy intensive and has a significant carbon footprint. For every polyester shirt, 5.5kg of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, compared to 2.1kg for a cotton shirt. Plus, the energy needed to produce the synthetic fabric is more than double that of conventional cotton.
Read more: Why Organic Cotton is Better
What’s more, polyester is typically made in developing countries where environmental regulations are lax. As a result, toxic chemicals like phthalates — which are used in the manufacturing to dying process — end up in the soil, air, and our water systems. The health of workers and consumers is also put at risk. Exposure to hazardous toxins like phthalates is linked to neurodevelopment and reproductive development issues, asthma, and breast cancer. And even in the U.S. where there are workplace regulations in place, garment workers report a higher rate of skin issues and disease than any other non-injury health symptom.
Then there’s the plastic problem. Because polyester is a synthetic plastic fiber, it can’t be recycled and can take anywhere from 20 to 200 years to decompose. In the meantime, it emits greenhouse gasses as it breaks down, causes harm to wildlife, and pollutes our environment. It’s expected that by 2050, there will be more plastics in our ocean than fish.
And when we wash synthetic clothes, like polyester shirts, shorts, and pants, the fabrics shed tiny particles known as microfibers into the water. It’s estimated that a single clothing item made of synthetic plastic material can release up to 700,000 microfibers in a single wash. Unfortunately, wastewater treatment plants can’t catch them all, and up to 40 percent of microfibers are released into our streams and waterways, where they’re ingested by animals, and in turn, us. According to a 2011 study, microfibers make up 85 percent of human-made waste on beaches and shorelines around the globe.
Read more: How Sustainable Fabrics Reduce Microplastics
The good news is there are ways you can reduce the impact of your clothing. Recycled polyester fabrics are having a moment. While they still shed microplastics when washed, manufacturing recycled PET plastic generates 79 percent fewer carbon emissions than virgin plastic, reduces our dependency on fossil fuels, and chips away at the enormous waste the fast fashion industry is notorious for. (Studies show the apparel industry generates 13 million tons of textile waste annually.)
Of course, investing in renewable, natural fabrics is always the best way to protect the health of people and the planet. Sustainable textiles like organic cotton, ethically sourced alpaca, and Lenzing-certified modal are made without toxic chemicals and pesticides, use less water than conventional fibers, and are safe for you, factory workers, and the environment. To ensure the integrity of the sustainable clothing you’re buying, look for trusted industry certifications like the Global Organic Textile (GOTS) certification. And to your research. Investigate whether the company you’re supporting uses natural, safe dyes and processes their fabrics without chemicals.
As consumers, we have the power to safeguard the future of our planet.
Read more: The Importance of Natural Dyes