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Are Recycled Polyester Garments The Lowest Hanging Fruit For Sustainability?

Could Today’Sustainable Fashion Be TODAY Where The Organic Food Industry Was 10-20 Years Ago?

How much do you know about polyester?

Chances are, it’s on your body right now.

Polyester is best defined as a group of polymers that consist basically of repeated units of an ester and are used especially in making fibers or plastics.

Today, even if you’re not wearing active wear or athleisure clothing, it’s likely that many (if not most) of your clothing have at least some percentage of polyester blended in it due to the fiber’s low costs, durability, and helps clothing not shrink after washing and drying.

For quite some time, polyester has dominated the market, with most data suggesting that polyester represents over 55% of the total global fiber market.

And that market share continues to grow.

According to IHS Markit’s Polyester Fiber’s 2018 market research report,

“Since 2000, consumption of polyester fibers has grown at a sustained average rate of almost 6% per year globally, because of their low cost of production, as well as versatility and relatively large spectrum of applications (from heavy-duty industrial applications to consumer apparel and home furnishing products).

Substitution of other materials has allowed polyester fiber to grow faster than the fiber market itself.”

In just 12 years, global polyester fiber production has more than doubled, from 24.7 million metric tons in 2005 to 53.7 million metric tons in 2017.

Traditionally, the world’s largest fiber was natural cotton, but due to the costs of farmland coupled with polyester’s increasing economy of scale as the fiber became more and more popular and polyester production costs became cheaper and cheaper.

Polyester officially overtook cotton as the world’s number one fiber in 2002.

While this HUGE spike may be great news for the textile and fashion industry, since polyester has become the lowest cost option since it doesn’t need farmland to produce (like its biggest competitor, cotton).

However, this is terrible news for the global plastic pollution crisis since obviously polyester IS a form of plastic and unlike cotton and natural fibers, it is of course NOT BIODEGRADABLE.

But unlike a lot of the endlessly complex problems with the plastic pollution crisis in general – such as:

……polyester can be recycled (and upcycled) MUCH easier than many other plastics and there is a large (and growing!) secondary market!

How?

Recycled polyester is typically made from your standard PET bottles. PET stands for polyethylene terephthalate and is amongst the most common and recyclable plastic there is!

Still sadly at only a 30% recycled rate, this is more than triple the general, cumulative recycling rate of 9%!

And PET water bottles are actually amongst the highest rate of recycled single use plastic in the world!

The International Bottled Water Association explains, “According to the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), at 37.46%, the recycling rate for single-serve PET plastic bottled water containers more than doubled between 2003-2014.”

There are a few reasons PET bottles are far more easily recyclable than most plastics.

The sheer volume of annual plastic production, while terrifying, mean that there will be a new, fresh, and abundant supply of PET bottles available for the foreseeable future at a relatively low cost.

Worse, if just a few items are soiled, they can contaminate the entire batch of recycled plastic and all items will be discarded to landfill. PET bottles (especially water bottles) contain only require very little cleaning or sanitation compared to other single use plastics.

The most common sizes are usually around the same size. Uniformity makes recycling easier and more cost effective. Secondly, clear bottles are best for recycling, since they can be used for any color.

 And although we are focusing here on PET bottles used to create recycled polyester, PET bottles can be recycled into a number of different end products.

As the National Association for PET Container Resources explains,

“From a recycling or curbside bin, PET containers are collected, sorted, processed, cleaned, and then remanufactured into a variety of new products, including fiber for clothing and carpets; fiberfill for soft furnishings and sleeping bags; pallet strapping; food and non-food bottles, and thermoformed packaging such as cups and take-out containers.”

The reason we believe that recycled polyester is perhaps “the lowest hanging fruit for plastic sustainability” is because it appears to be a convergence and alignment of market forces, governmental response and increased consumer awareness.

When combined, we believe this secondary market will continue to grow in flourish in the coming years.

Let’s simplify.

PET bottles have amongst the highest recycled rate, and PET water bottles are even higher at 37.5%.

PET bottle production and consumption are at an all-time high and continue to grow. In terms of a raw material for recycling, PET bottles are globally abundant, cheap to collect (with infrastructure and bin placement widely available in virtually all developed countries), and relatively cheap to recycle.

Similarly, polyester production is globally at an all-time high as the world’s number one fiber (and amongst the cheapest fiber) and is well anticipated to continue growing into the next decade and beyond.

When you put together abundant and cheap raw material supply of PET bottles with extremely high demand for polyester, we strongly believe that, over time, the COST of recycled polyester will fall.

Aiding that fall are also consumer awareness and tastes shift that will DEMAND sustainable alternatives, just as they do at the grocery store (think organic and non-GMO), a restaurant, or a car dealership (hybrid, electric, etc.)

We believe that, over time, sustainable fashion trends will mirror those of organic food trends.

Fortunately, there are already some signs of economies of scale in the recycled polyester market, and finally we are beginning to see some major players enter the sustainable clothing market, like H&M with their “conscious collection.”

One the biggest challenges and overall goals is to create awareness, not only of the accelerating plastic crisis in general, but also how widespread plastic pollution is in the fashion industry.

So many well-meaning people don’t even know that the vast majority of their clothing contains at least some type of non-biodegradable plastic (not to mention that fashion, especially fast fashion, is amongst the dirtiest and highest polluting industries in the world!)

And with a HUGE global carbon footprint!

So if you care about the environment as a whole and especially plastic pollution’s (and its CO2 byproduct!) decimating effects on our ocean habitats and wildlife, please please consider sustainable alternatives in your wardrobe.

SOURCES:

https://www.plasticsinsight.com/resin-intelligence/resin-prices/polyester/

https://www.statista.com/statistics/912301/polyester-fiber-production-worldwide/

https://ihsmarkit.com/products/polyester-fibers-chemical-economics-handbook.html

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/polyester

https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/nearly-every-brand-of-bottled-water-contains-microplastics/

https://www.cbc.ca/passionateeye/features/our-fast-fashion-habit-is-killing-the-planet

https://laquilaactive.com/blogs/news/recycled-polyester-garments-the-lowest-hanging-fruit-for-plastic-sustainability

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