Is Polyester Sustainable & Eco Friendly For Fibres, Fabric & Textiles?

We’ve already put together guides about some of the most eco friendly fibres and fabrics, and the least eco friendly fibres and fabrics.

In the guide below though, we outline how sustainable or eco friendly polyester might be across different factors.

 

(*NOTE: this guide focuses on the main type of polyester used in polyester fabric – the synthetic fibre, PET.)

 

Summary – Is Polyester Sustainable & Eco Friendly For Fibres, Fabric & Textiles?

Sustainability & Eco Friendliness

– Overall

On one hand, polyester can be affordable, can offer a range of traits in fibres and fabrics that other fibres cannot, is one of the largest fibre industries in the economy, and surprisingly outperforms some natural fibres across some sustainability metrics across it’s supply and production chain.

Additionally, some newer polyesters like plant based polyesters and polyesters made from recycled material (or that can be recycled itself) offer new sustainability benefits.

On the other hand, some of the biggest drawbacks still for polyester are that it still mainly comes from non renewable feedstock in petrochemicals, most of the supply and production chain uses chemicals and may have a reasonable energy, carbon and water footprint, it isn’t biodegradable and can take a long time to break down in the environment, and it can be responsible for a range of environmental pollution (the oil manufacturing industry is one of the world’s largest polluters for example)

 

– Potential Benefits

Polyester does not require agricultural inputs like pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, or agricultural land

Some sources indicate that polyester uses less water than irrigation hungry cotton in some countries, and perhaps less water than hemp as well

Polyester may use less energy per weight of produced fibre compared to other synthetic fibres like acrylic and nylon

Polyester may use less land than cotton to produce, and may be on par with hemp, per tonne of finished textile.

There’s newer polyesters that are plant based or recycled that may have some sustainability benefits over conventional PET polyester fibres. One example might be being biodegradable in some conditions

Some new forms of polyester can be recycled or up cycled in certain ways

Some people make the point that polyester might need less washing, ironing and after purchase care than some natural fabrics, and has a lower eco and sustainability footprint because of this, but this is a general point and really depends on the person and fabric item in question.

 

– Potential Drawbacks

Synthetic petrochemical based polyester relies on non renewable fossil fuels as a feedstock

Polyester does not involve agricultural production, but, instead it requires mining and refining. Petrochemicals like petroleum and natural gas need to first be extracted, and then also be processed at a refinery. Both of these stages have an environmental and sustainability footprint. Mining for example has it’s own set of sustainability and environmental effects to consider

The polymerisation and fibre production stage for synthetic polyester has an environmental and sustainability footprint 

Some sources indicate that polyester has one of the highest water footprints amongst fibres, with only water hungry cotton surpassing it. 

Some sources indicate that polyester may have a higher carbon footprint than cotton per ton of spun fibre

Polyester may use more energy per weight of produced fibre compared to natural fibres like cotton and hemp

Polyester has the potential to use chemicals at almost every stage throughout it’s supply and production chain – from extraction of fossil fuels, through to fibre production

Most conventional synthetic polyesters are not biodegradable of compostable, and can take hundreds of years to decompose/break down

Micro plastics can be an issue for polyester textiles, and also littered or mismanaged polyester waste

Conventional polyester generally isn’t recyclable

Plant based and recycled polyester fibres are still not perfect from a sustainability perspectives i.e. they each still have some potential drawbacks

 

Practical Considerations

Polyester is currently the most produced fibre amongst all fibres, with cotton in second

Polyester as a fibre has different traits to consider compared to other fibres. Synthetic fibres may be able to achieve traits and properties (due to synthetic manufacturing) that natural fibres can’t.

Synthetic fibres like polyester can have a wide range of uses and be used for many types of textiles that some natural fibres can’t be.

There’s different types of polyester, from PET, through to plant based and recycled polyesters

It may be difficult to make a direct comparison of polyester to some natural fibres because polyester does not usually come from a crop or agricultural material

 

Economic Considerations

The polyester industry is one of the biggest fibre industries, if not the biggest, when measured by dollar worth to the economy. It is worth close to 100 billion USD by 2020 data. It is only expected to grow into the 2020’s as demand for polyester grows

Polyester can be cheap for consumers, and can provide an option for low income earners

 

What About The Eco Friendliness & Sustainability Of Other Fibres & Fabrics?

We’ve put together guides about some of the most eco friendly fibres and fabrics, and the least eco friendly fibres and fabrics.

These guides may provide further insight on how polyester compares to other fibres too.

 

Other Factors That Might Impact The Sustainability Or Eco Friendliness Of Fibres

This guide outlines some more of the factors that contribute to how sustainable and eco friendly different fibres and fabrics might be.

 

*This Guide Is A Generalisation Only

It’s important to note that polyester production variables and processes can differ between between producers and suppliers, and the usage and disposal of polyester products can vary.

Polyester can also be blended with a natural fibre in a finished textile (like cotton for example), which can change the overall impact or eco footprint of a product or piece of clothing.

These factors and other factors can impact the final sustainability and eco friendliness footprint of polyester fibres and products.

 

What Is Polyester Fibre?

There are different types of polyester, but most are synthetic polyesters.

Synthetic polyester tends to be made from polymer material made from chemical reactions involving water, air and compounds derived from petroleum.

Like plastic, synthetic polyester is made from hydrocarbons.

Polyesters also exist that come from a natural feedstock i.e. they are plant or organic matter based, although these are currently less common 

Other types of polyester may include recycled polyester, which can be made from recycled plastic bottles.

 

How Polyester Is Processed/Manufactured?

A general polyester production lifecycle might look like this:

– Crude oil or gas is extracted (these petrochemicals are the feedstock for polyester)

– Petrochemicals are processed at the refinery stage to create refinery by-products

– These by-products and raw material go through polymerization and extrusion stages, where polyester (such as PET – Polyethylene terephthalate) is eventually created in the form of chips, filament yarn or staple fibres. We discuss these stages, including the creation of monomers and polymers for synthetic fibres, in this guide

 

You can read more about the polyester production processes and stages on pages 10 and 11 of the listed waterfootprint.org resource 

 

Production Of Polyester

As A % Share Of All Fibres

You can view the production share of both synthetic fibres and also polyester specifically compared to other fibres in this guide.

As a summary, polyester is the most produced fibre out of all fibres, with cotton in second.

 

Renewability Of Polyester

Conventional non plant based and non recycled polyester comes from petrochemical derived compounds, and is technically not renewable.

Polyester also uses the same resources that products like hard plastic use as a feedstock.

 

From sewport.com: [Polyester uses fossil fuels and competes with other materials like plastic for this limited resource]

 

How Much Water Polyester Takes To Make (Water Footprint)

Some sources indicate that polyester has one of the highest water footprints amongst fibres, surpassed only by irrigation hungry cotton in parts of India

Other sources say that polyester uses much less water than both cotton and hemp.

Polyester might be hard to compare in terms of it’s water footprint to natural fibres because polyester is not a crop or agricultural product.

Polyester should take into account mining, refining, polymerisation, extruding, and other parts of the fibre production stage.

Natural fibres on the other hand take into account the farming stage instead of mining and refining.

 

Polyester Specifically

The water footprint of polyester can be as high as 71,000 cubic metres of water per tonne of fibre (waterfootprint.org)

 

Compared To Other Crops & Fibres

On average, polyester has the highest water footprint [compared to cotton and viscose], only surpassed by some conventional cotton farms in India … (waterfootprint.org)

 

slate.com, and sei.org outline a case study that compares the water, land, and energy requirements of cotton, polyester, and hemp textiles.

[They mention that production methods impact the sustainability of a fibre, but the information provided on water use was …]

Polyester is difficult to compare [to cotton and hemp], because it’s not an agricultural product.

But some studies suggest it’s the least water-intensive of the bunch, using just one-thousandth as much water as cotton. (In fact, water is a byproduct of polyester processing.)

 

Carbon Footprint Of Polyester

Some sources indicate that polyester has a higher carbon footprint than cotton per ton of spun fibre.

 

In terms of KG of CO2 emissions per ton of spun fiber, polyester and synthetic fibres have one of the highest carbon footprints. 

Polyester has 9.52kg of CO2 emissions per ton of spun fiber compared to cotton at 5.90kg

– oecotextiles.wordpress.com

 

How Much Energy Polyester Uses

In terms of synthetic fibres, polyester might use less energy than acrylic and nylon, but might use more than double or triple the energy of natural fibres like cotton and hemp.

Although natural fibres might use energy for pesticides and herbicides, extracting oil for polyester takes a lot more energy.

 

Compared To Other Fibres

In terms of energy use in MJ per KG of fiber, polyester rates only just behind Acrylic and Nylon.

It uses 125 MJ, compared to cotton at 55

– oecotextiles.wordpress.com

 

slate.com, and sei.org outline a case study that compares the water, land, and energy requirements of cotton, polyester, and hemp textiles.

[They mention that production methods impact the sustainability of a fibre, but the information provided on energy use was …]

Pesticides and herbicides account for more than one-half of the energy in farming either hemp or cotton …

Organic cotton required [slightly] less energy than organic hemp

Polyester, a petroleum-based synthetic fabric, was the clear loser by a 3-1 margin, because it takes so much energy to extract the oil required to make it.

 

How Much Pesticide & Fertiliser Does Polyester Use?

None.

Polyester is not derived from an agricultural product like a crop like some natural fibres are.

 

How Much Land Does Polyester Use?

Polyester may use less land than cotton to produce, and may be on par with hemp, per tonne of finished textile.

 

Compared To Other Crops & Fibres

slate.com, and sei.org outline a case study that compares the water, land, and energy requirements of cotton, polyester, and hemp textiles.

[They mention that production methods impact the sustainability of a fibre, but the information provided on land use was …]

[Cotton] needs approximately twice as much territory as hemp per ton of finished textile …

While organic farmers can save on energy by cutting synthetic pesticides and herbicides, their yield per acre drops.

Polyester … does almost as well as hemp on land use.

 

Type Of Land

The type of land polyester uses though should be considered.

Cotton and hemp may require agricultural land, whereas polyester’s land footprint is for mining sites, refinery sites, fibre production sites, and so on.

 

Polyester, Soil Health, & Land Degradation

Polyester is derived from fossil fuel feedstock which has to be extracted.

Mining has a range of potential land degradation issues to consider.

 

The Yield Of Polyester

Because polyester is not derived from an agricultural product, we haven’t been able to get yield data to compare it to a natural fibre that comes from a crop of tree plantations for example.

 

How Many Chemicals Does Polyester Use?

Polyester uses chemicals throughout essentially every stage of it supply and production stage.

Mining, refining, polymerisation, and fibre extruding and spinning, along with finishing and treating polyester, all use chemicals.

In comparison, a natural fibre like bamboo or flax may use few chemicals at the growing stage, depending on the region they are grown in and the agricultural practices used.

 

From sewport.com:

… [the refining process of crude oil into petroleum produces toxins, further refinement of petroleum into ethylene is wasteful and introduces more toxins]

… the process of transforming ethylene into polyethylene terephthalate fibers produces more harmful synthetic byproducts, and the dyes and treatment processes used by polyester fabric manufacturers [create more environmental harm]

 

Is Polyester Biodegradable?

Most polyesters are synthetic and are not biodegradable.

These synthetic polyesters can take hundreds of years to break down in the environment.

But, some newer types of plant based polyesters may be biodegradable and compostable in some conditions. This varies from product to product though.

 

… It can take up to 200 years for polyester fabric to decompose (goodonyou.eco)

 

Is Polyester Recyclable?

Some synthetic polyesters may be able to be up cycled in some ways, but they generally aren’t recyclable.

Having said that, some polyesters are recyclable in certain ways.

There are some post consumer recycled polyester fabrics available on the market, and some companies are coming up with processes to allow some types of polyester blends to be recycled.

 

Up until recently you couldn’t recycle polyester over and over again (blog.trashbackwards.com)

 

But, some companies now are coming up with closed loop processes that allow you to recycle polyester cotton blend clothing (eco-business.com)

 

Cotton vs Polyester vs Hemp – Sustainability Case Study 

Overall, polyester may compare favorably to cotton and hemp across some different sustainability measures in some case studies, but may have some areas where it’s less sustainable too.

 

slate.com, and sei.org outline a case study that compares the water, land, and energy requirements of cotton, polyester, and hemp textiles.

Some of the notable findings of that case study were:

[The impact of different production methods on sustainability …]

Different production techniques … can significantly increase or reduce the impact [of each fibre]. 

… organic methods are responsible for less carbon-dioxide emissions [for example]

[In terms of overall sustainability of each fibre …]

There’s an argument to make for polyester, but the non-renewability of synthetic textiles raises serious concerns.

Overall, hemp appears to be slightly easier on the environment than cotton, considering it’s superior on water and land requirements, and only slightly worse for energy use.

 

Impact Of Polyester On The Environment, Humans & Human Health, & Animals & Wildlife

The Environment

Pollution of land, air and water can happen at almost all stages of the conventional polyester production cycle.

Beyond environmental effects at the mining/extraction stage, there’s also waste water and the management of chemicals to consider.

There can also be the issue of micro plastics from polyester clothing, and littered or mismanaged polyester waste.

Read more about the environmental consequences of polyester production in the peacefuldumpling.com resource

 

From sewport.com: ‘… the washing of polyester releases microfibers into the environment and is second to only acrylic in terms of pollution rates …’

 

Humans & Human Health

Working conditions in some polyester fibre production facilities can be questionable in some parts of the world, and chemicals used during production may pose a health and safety risk in some instances.

 

The production process of polyester can mean workers are exposed to toxic chemicals

Monomers in polyester can have toxic effects [as one example]

– oecotextiles.wordpress.com

 

The production of polyester uses harmful chemicals, including carcinogens (peacefuldumpling.com)

 

From sewport.com: ‘… working conditions in polyester production may be poor and workers may be exposed to various forms of health hazards’

 

Wildlife & Animals

From oil extraction, to the rest of the polyester production process, there can be disruption or removal of animal habitats, but also releasing of chemicals into the water and soil that animals live in and on.

 

Practical Benefits Of Polyester

Fibre Traits

Polyester as a fibre has different traits to consider compared to other fibres

 

Comparison To Rayon & Other Fibres

In this guide, we compare polyester to rayon and other fibres across a range of factors.

 

Economic Impact Of Polyester

The polyester industry is one of the biggest, if not the biggest fibre industry in the world in terms of size of industry, by dollar value of worth the economy per year.

The flow on effect from this is income, employment, and so on.

 

Value Of The Industry

[The] Global Polyester Fiber Market size was valued at over USD 90 billion in 2020 and is expected to grow at a CAGR of 7.8% from 2021 to 2027 …

[Developments in the global fashion industry (and rising demand for polyester fibers in the textile industry and rapid growth of the fashion industry), growing urbanization and home décor industry, and superior properties of polyester fibers as compared to other synthetic fibers, are some of the main reasons for growth of polyester in the future]

[The apparel industry in particular may drive demand and growth in the future for polyester]

– gminsights.com

 

What About Plant Based Polyester?

Plant based polyesters may make some sustainability advances, but, they may also still be an imperfect option with several drawbacks at the moment.

 

There are plant based polyesters available that might use a sugar cane ethylene source material, but sewport.com indicates that ‘Most types of plant-based polyester are also made from ethylene glycol reacted with dimethyl terephthalate’.

However, sewport.com goes on to say that some plant based polyesters might be biodegradable in some ways.

They also say ‘Plant-based polyester, however, costs more to make, and it may be less durable than its PET or PCDT textile equivalents’

From sewport.com: [it’s unclear as to whether plant based polyesters are a good alternative]

 

Sources

1. https://goodonyou.eco/material-guide-polyester-2/ 

2. https://waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/WFA_Polyester_and__Viscose_2017.pdf 

3. https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2011/01/19/estimating-the-carbon-footprint-of-a-fabric/ 

4. https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2011/10/13/polyester-and-our-health/ 

5. https://www.peacefuldumpling.com/why-polyester-production-damages-the-environment 

6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyester 

7. https://www.ecofashionsewing.com/fibres-textiles/fabric-fashion-industry-synthetic-fibres/ 

8. http://www.whatispolyester.com/

9. https://www.contrado.co.uk/blog/what-is-polyester-a-closer-look-into-this-love-it-or-hate-it-fabric/ 

10. https://www.barnhardtcotton.net/blog/know-fibers-difference-between-polyester-and-cotton/  

11. https://blog.trashbackwards.com/2013/03/19/can-you-recycle-synthetic-fabrics/ 

12. https://www.eco-business.com/news/a-way-to-repeatedly-recycle-polyester-has-just-been-discovered/

13. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fashion/fabrics-environment-fast-fashion-eco-friendly-pollution-waste-polyester-cotton-fur-recycle-a8963921.html

14. https://www.cotton.org/pubs/cottoncounts/fieldtofabric/uses.cfm

15. https://sewport.com/fabrics-directory/polyester-fabric

16. https://www.sei.org/publications/ecological-footprint-water-analysis-cotton-hemp-polyester/ 

17. https://slate.com/technology/2011/04/hemp-versus-cotton-which-is-better-for-the-environment.html 

18. https://www.gminsights.com/industry-analysis/polyester-fiber-market

Leave a Comment