Recycled Polyester Fabric, Should You Use It?
Polyester is a fabric that the fashion industry just can’t seem to quit. Love it (like in your athletic and swimwear), or hate it (in fast fashion) - it’s not going anywhere. A solution to the fashion industry's love of poly has been to use recycled polyester fabric, or rPet fabric that is made from garbage plastics. One of the most mainstream examples of this; which I am sure you have heard of by now, is recycled water bottle material. You’ve probably already heard about how when you buy clothes with these fabrics, you are “saving” not just the fashion industry but the planet.
But, as usual, sustainability is not as black and white as TikTok would like you to believe. Are recycled fabrics the biggest eco-scam of the century, or are they really doing something good? Let’s dive in.
BUT, BEFORE WE GET STARTED.
Have you heard about the super secret document that everyone in the fashion industry uses, but no one is talking about? Probably not. That is because you can't find it on Google or TikTok (believe me, I've tried).
It's a form I have used for over 13 years at every job I have ever had. Literally, everyone from brands to fabric suppliers use it, but you can't find it anywhere publicly.
The best part? It can cut your sourcing time in half and save you tons of money in product development! This is the kind of info consultants charge the big bucks for. And I'm giving it away for free until the end of the month.
So, get ready to make fashion startup life a whole lot easier, and GRAB YOUR FREE DOWNLOAD OF THE NOT-SO-SECRET SOURCING DOC HERE.
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY
The best way we can contribute to a more sustainable future is to get educated and have all of the information. Not just the clickbait stuff that gets eyeballs on pages.
So, I am going to share all of my industry insider knowledge with you. This stuff is pretty in-depth, but you can handle it.
By the end of this article, you’ll be more informed, and instead of having a magazine tell you what to think, you will be ready to make your own decisions about recycled fabric.
WHAT YOU WILL LEARN
- History of recycled polyester fabrics
- How recycled polyester became popular
- Recycled polyester’s not-so-eco dirty secret
- What we should be doing with ocean plastic instead of making clothing
- Creating circular supply chains
- Should brands use recycled polyester fabric?
- Recycled polyester fabric suppliers I love
- Final tips on buying recycled and sustainable fabrics
- Consumer responsibility
HISTORY OF RECYCLED POLYESTER
To understand how recycled fabrics, might seem like an eco-friendly alternative, but are not really a long-term solution, first, you need to understand the history of this “new technology”.
Recycled polyester was first invented in 1993 and only became mainstream in the United States around 2017. It took fashion over 24 years to start using recycled polyester. And, the reason it took brands so long to jump on board is because, at first, the technology wasn't that great.
Yarns were not consistent. And because different colors of water bottles entered the recycling system, different colors of yarns would come out. This made dying the textiles and getting exact color matches very difficult. The fabric also felt horrible. Early versions of recycled polyester felt, kind of squeaky, almost like styrofoam.
But over the past 25+ years, the technology has gotten better. To the point where there is no distinction in quality between virgin polyester and recycled. There are even some manufacturers these days that are making recycled fabrics that feel and perform better than virgin options. Because of this, more and more businesses are ready to hop on the bandwagon and do what they believe to be the “eco-friendly” thing.
HOW RECYCLED POLYESTER BECAME MAINSTREAM
Once the fabric quality was there, it was only a matter of time before recycled polyester caught on. And, that is because it’s the perfect marketing tool for two reasons.
First, it allows brands to be sustainable while still using petroleum-based and crude oil products. There are some advantages of polyester fabric that just can’t be replicated with other fibers, specifically in swim and performance garments. Sometimes, to create the best garment possible, you really do need poly.
And two, it encourages consumers to buy more. Not only are they purchasing something they want anyway, but they are being told they are helping to clean up the oceans and save the planet while doing so.
But, here’s the thing, half the battle in sustainable fashion is not just using more conscious materials; it is getting people to slow down. To buy less. And, to buy better.
The problem is that recycling plastic and making fabric is not a solution to our culture of overconsumption. It is more like a delay in the system. It allows us to get a few more uses out of something before it ultimately ends up in the forbidden L-word . . . the landfill.
Promoting this idea that using recycled fibers helps our environmental problems is especially dangerous. It allows shoppers to believe that we can continue participating in fast fashion without any consequences. Not only that, they take it one step further. We are taught to believe that we actually saving the planet while shopping. This form of corporate greenwashing makes us feel good about the things we buy, but in reality, our dollars are not making the change we think they are. And we are still part of the problem.
IS RECYCLED POLYESTER ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY?
Swimwear and yoga wear are perfect current examples of greenwashing in fashion when it comes to fabric recycling. Swimwear brands using recycled fabrics never mention that their fabrics end up in the landfill after you throw them away. They conveniently leave that part out, and focus on the save the sea turtles; we recycle ocean plastic narrative instead. Encouraging you to buy more and save more sea animals.
So, can you recycle polyester?
The truth is, recycled swimwear and yoga wear can’t be recycled once it goes from plastic to fabric.
So, while they are correct in their marketing by saying their fabrics come from 100% recycled materials. That does not mean that those new materials can be recycled again - and the reason for that is elasticity.
So, maybe not as eco as we once thought…
ONE WAY RECYCLED POLYESTER FIBER IS ACTUALLY ECO
While recycled fabrics might not be as perfect as you once thought, here is something that is actually true!
Creating fibers from recycled plastics actually creates less co2 emissions, than manufacturing virgin fibers.
Sadly this really important sustainable fact is rarely mentioned as brands tend to focus more on the ocean plastic story.
RECYCLING RECYCLED POLYESTER
Swim and yoga wear needs to have stretch materials in them, like spandex, lycra (both brand names), or elastane (generic). The stretch fibers help the clothes not get stretched when wet and sweaty, and add comfort to the garment. I mean, technically, you could make a swimsuit without stretch, but it just wouldn’t preform well, and customers would not want to wear it.
And, here is the thing when you combine elastic with polyester, it basically becomes impossible to recycle or use for anything else.
Technically it is possible to re-recycle 100% recycled polyester fabrics. But, at the moment, it is not commercially viable. Meaning, financially, it does not make sense. There are, however people working on this, and maybe, one day it will be possible.
BURN BABY BURN
The most eco thing you can do with a recycled polyester swimsuit is burn it. That is really the only way how to recycle polyester.
Yes, you read that correctly, set it on fire.
Sweden is actually pioneering this practice. In Sweeden, about 49% of household waste is recycled, 50% is burned, and only 1 percent ends up in a landfill.
And, if you are thinking of huge smokestacks, with toxic fumes pluming out - you’ve got it all wrong. The machines have pollution controls that filter and neutralize toxins.
IT’S ALL KIND OF A RIPOFF
Brands taking a large premium for having recycled fabrics are technically ripping you off. Back even five-seven years ago, recycled polyester was expensive because only a few people were making it, and quantities were limited.
Now, recycled poly is everywhere! And, prices have come down a lot. It is still a bit more expensive than virgin poly, but the difference is small enough, that it should not be making a huge impact on customers' wallets.
ARE RECYCLED WATER BOTTLE FABRICS STEALING RESOURCES?
There are actually different types of recycling, and they all have different environmental impacts.
From a young age, we are trained to think of recycling as a never-ending process. We throw something old that we no longer need or want into the recycling system, and something new pops out! But . . . that's a lie. What really happens is that something of lesser quality comes out. And every time we re-recycle, and re-re-recycle, the quality of that product is going down and down. The term for this is “downcycling.”
RECYCLED FABRIC IS ACTUALLY DOWNCYCLING
An example of downcycling would be turning recycled plastic bottles into fabric. As I already mentioned, swimwear brands using recycled fabrics never mention that their fabrics end up in the landfill when you are done wearing their products. They conveniently leave that part out. Again, just to be clear, once the bottles are recycled into fabric, they cannot be re-recycled into a fabric again.
Swimwear doesn't last in general, and neither do workout clothes. They need to be replaced often. Sometimes every season. No matter how well you take care of it, swimwear will eventually fall apart. Chlorine, UV rays from sun exposure, and saltwater are the perfect trifecta to destroy a garment. No matter what you do, your swimwear will not last forever. And workout wear will eventually get stinky.
And when it’s time to toss that garment, the next, most sustainable stop for it is to be downcycled again.
We can use mechanical recycling methods to shred the garments into something like carpet, pillow stuffing, or insulation for a house.
And at the very end of the fibers journey, the carpet or pillow stuffing is often burned to create energy or goes to the landfill.
Downcycling continues until the product cannot be recycled anymore. But eventually, clothing ends up in a landfill. It’s a delay until the inevitable end.
What is more eco than making recycled polyester fabric?
Making more water bottles.
Water bottle recycling is actually a closed-loop system. Meaning you can keep recycling, re-recycling, and re-re-recycling them.
Circularity or cradle-to-cradle-product means that a product can keep being recycled forever, or is biodegraded in a non-harmful way back into the environment.
An example of circularity that actually works would be making water bottles. Because the process of making new water bottles is never-ending. Old water bottles can keep going into the system with new ones coming out. It’s not like water bottle fabric, where once the fabric is made, it then eventually ends up in a landfill.
So, when you really think about it, that fashion industry is being kind of selfish. It is stealing resources from a circular system to put them into a system where the final product will eventually become trash.
SHOULD BRANDS USE RECYCLED POLYESTER MATERIALS?
In my personal opinion, yes. While clearly, recycled polyester is not a perfect solution. It is a step in the right direction.
I think, brands should be more transparent in the shortcomings of this fiber technology and work towards better solutions in the future.
Remember, in fashion manufacturing, there is no perfect. There is no “the most sustainable … ever”. There is always room for improvement.
RECYCLED POLYESTER AND NYLON FABRIC SUPPLIERS
There are a few of my favorite recycled polyester fabric suppliers
- Produced by UNIFI. “We transform recycled plastic bottles into certifiable, traceable, high-performance yarn. The contents of your recycling bin become thermo-regulating pants for hikers, moisture-wicking apparel for athletes, odor control tees for teens, fire-resistant sofas for loungers, and water-repellant phone cases for accident-prone environmentalists.”
- Produced by AQUAFIL. “Nylon waste, including fishing nets, old carpets, and nylon industrial waste, which would otherwise pollute the Earth, is transformed into ECONYL® regenerated nylon, boasting the same qualities as brand-new nylon, but unlike traditional nylon, ECONYL® can be recycled, recreated, and remolded again and again.”
- Full range of recycled polyester fabrics made in Italy - swimwear, lingerie, sports, apparel, and home furnishings.
- QCycle - 100% of the material needed for fiber production comes from end-of-life tires
- Amni Soul Eco - biodegradable Nylon 6.6 “Amni Soul Eco® is eliminated from the planet in about 5 years, whilst other fibres take decades to decompose.”
- QNova - “environmentally-sustainable nylon 6.6 fibre obtained from regenerated raw materials and which meets given traceability requirements.”
A FEW LAST TIPS TO HELP YOU BUY MORE ECO-FRIENDLY FABRICS
Here are a few last tips to help you choose the most sustainable fabrics possible.
REALLY DO YOUR RESEARCH
There is sooooo much info out there; here are a few tips to make sure you are getting correct information.
EXPERTS NOT INFLUENCERS
To become an informed consumer, you really need to know whats what in the world of apparel manufacturing. For example, at the start of this article, I bet you didn’t know that polyester recycling technology was decades old - since brands conveniently leave that part out.
Instead of relying on passionate influencers and brands to educate you, seek out experts. Two of my favorite fashion industry publications to learn from are The Business of Fashion and Sourcing Journal.
PAY ATTENTION TO THE FINE PRINT
This stuff is confusing. Because, at the end of the day, fashion, especially fiber science, is very scientific. Learning about how fabrics are made in school is literally an engineering degree. Because of that, it’s easy to get mixed up, but stick with it. You’re smart, and you’ll get it.
An example of tricky fiber science is that Nylon 6 should not be confused with Nylon 66.
Nylon 66 is made from two polymers, hexamethylenediamine, and adipic acid. Because there are two polymers working together to make one fiber, it is harder to recycle (read, basically impossible). So, garments made out of Nylon 66 end up in the landfill or get turned into rugs and insulation.
Nylon 6 comes from one raw polymer material, caprolactam. Nylon 6 can be recycled by purifying the caprolactam, which is a process that takes out all of the dyes and colors. It is then re-polymerized into new fibers. And this process can happen infinitely as long as the Nylon 6 is pure.
To be clear. Nylon 6 cannot be blended with organic cotton, elastane, or any other fibers.
KEEP AN EYE ON NEW TECHNOLOGY
- Swimwear - There is another option for swimwear that saves the ocean. And that is nylon. Some types of nylon, like nylon 6, can actually be recycled infinitely. And, as an added bonus, nylon is much stronger than polyester, meaning clothes will last longer!
- Spandex - The company AsahiKasei is making Roica. Roica is elastane (read stretch fibers, aka spandex) that uses post-consumer recycled materials. In theory, combining the Roica with recycled poly or nylon fabric would create the first ever 100% post-plastic waste swim fabric.
ENCOURAGE YOUR CUSTOMERS TO BUY LESS
Another good rule of thumb is to simply buy less. Misinformation and clever marketing encourages us to produce more styles and to consume more in general. But don't be fooled. We need to remember that the solution to fast fashion and the world's environmental problems will never be creating more stuff, no matter how eco-friendly a product is.
CREATE A SAFE SPACE FOR CONVERSATIONS
Encourage customers and brands to have conversations (not witch hunts). The more we can educate and have dialogue, the more demand we can create for sustainable material innovation.
Yes, recycled polyester is a step in the right direction, but we can do better.
Overall, we need to always continue to push the boundaries of the fashion industry. It’s how it will keep improving. I think this video from The Story of Stuff about microfibers is a great example of how we can always be pushing to do better and create new solutions.
And, sustainability should not just be the brand's responsibility. We need customers to chip in and do their part too.
Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.
This little rhyme ingrained into most of our minds as children is actually the hierarchy of what to do with your old stuff.
Instead of relying on brands to take our junk that ends up in the oceans, and make it into something new, we need to focus on less stuff ending up in the ocean in the first place.
Here is how that relates to plastic PET bottles.
The best thing to do is to reduce your consumption, and maybe not even use it at all.
There has been a huge push for de-growth. Meaning instead of corporations being focused on scaling and making more, they should be figuring out ways to make less, and make better.
The reason Shein is successful is because people can’t stop buying it. If we all stopped buying it, they would need to make less.
It’s that simple.
So, just try not to use that plastic PET bottle in the first place.
If you really need something, then try and reuse it. As in, buying secondhand.
From 2021 to 2022 alone, the second-hand market grew 24% (worth 199 billion in total).
While there are lots of issues with this boom in second-hand buying (like prices getting super expensive because of increased demand), at the end of the day, using, and re-using what already exists is helpful for the planet.
Going back to our water bottle example - buy a reusable bottle, and keep refilling it instead of buying disposable ones.
And, if you can’t reuse it, your last resort is to recycle.
And, obviously, try not to throw anything, ever, into the landfill.
Back to our plastic water bottle example - your last resort should be buying the one-time-use water bottle and recycling it. And, this should go without saying, but you should never pollute.
LET ME HEAR YOUR COMMENTS?!
What do you think? Is recycled polyester as sustainable as you thought it was? Will you use it in your brand, and buy it in your closet?