Understanding Polyester

polyester thread

Polyester (plastic) is the most commonly used clothing fiber in the world.  Made from crude oil, plastic is extruded (pushed) through tiny holes to make fibers which are spun into threads for clothing. It’s popular because of it’s softness, resistance to wrinkles, and strength. It’s unpopular due to the amount of pollution and carbon it generates to make it, it’s inability to biodegrade, and it’s lack of breathability.

Qualities of Polyester
  • Strong – extruded plastic fibers are stronger and more resilient than natural fibers.
  • Doesn’t wrinkle – because polyester is formed into a straight shape in the manufacturing process, it maintains that shape. This makes it difficult to iron but great to wear as wrinkles are minimal.
  • Low Absorbency – polyester doesn’t hold much water compared to natural fibers like cotton. This means it dries more quickly than cotton, but also that it won’t absorb moisture when used in items like towels.
  • Although normal polyester traps moisture against the body and isn’t necessarily warm, it can be manufactured to wick moisture away from the body, be water repellant, or to hold in warmth.
  • Doesn’t shrink as much as natural fibers.
  • Can hold an electrical charge, causing static cling.
  • Can stain easily, or be difficult to remove stains from.
Care for Polyester
  • Reducing the rate that we wash polyester (ie. wash every two or three wears instead of every wear) reduces the flow of microplastics into our water supplies and also reduces energy and water requirements for laundering.
  • Washing inside out can reduce pilling and prevent snags on the outside of the fabric.
  • Water Temperature
    • Wash in cool water to freshen up your garment. Washing in cool water reduces the amount of carbon used to care for our clothes over time.
    • When dealing with stains, especially oil based stains, wash with warm water and pre-treat with soap.
  • Air drying takes less time for polyester garments because they hold less water, and reduces our carbon footprint.
  • If using the dryer, tumble dry on low. High heat may cause shrinking over time.
  • To address static cling, try eco friendly fabric softeners (or just 1/2 cup of white vinegar in the rinse cycle), drying synthetics and cottons separately, or air drying.
  • If ironing is required, iron on a low heat setting. High heat can make fabric shiny or, in a bad case, melt it completely.
  • Can be made from recycled materials like bottles.
  • Doesn’t use much crop land or water in it’s production.
  • Is soft, strong and long lasting
  • Is ideal in equipment for special situations, like keeping people warm while mountain climbing, or wicking away moisture when worn by athletes.
  • Doesn’t wrinkle.
  • Resistant to mildew.
  • Polyester is not a renewable resource. It comes from fossil fuels, which take millions of years to replenish.
  • Polyester is not very biodegradable. Under ideal conditions (which landfills are not), it can take 20-200 years for polyester to decompose.
  • When washed, thousands of microplastic fibers are shed from our polyester clothing and enter our water through the sewer systems, creating havoc in marine ecosystems and eventually finding its way back into our bodies through the food chain.
  • When recycled, it is mostly downcycled – instead of becoming a new shirt, recycled polyester is mostly used for lower quality items like cushion stuffing or carpeting.
What to Do With Polyester

Despite its disadvantages, it is unlikely that polyester will be going away any time soon, as it is currently much cheaper to make and purchase polyester than other fibers. What can we do to lessen it’s impact?

  • We should make sure that if we do purchase polyester, we buy or make garments that we love, are classic, and that we intend to use for a very long time (because that garment is going to last potentially 200 years).
  • If we are finished with a garment, we should make sure we give it to another person who will wear it, or give it to a fabric recycling facility that will re-purpose the fibers as stuffing or carpeting. DO NOT throw it out – more polyester in a landfill is the last thing we need!
  • We should launder it as responsibly as possible (see care tips, above) to reduce the amount of energy and water used over it’s life cycle.
  • Purchase polyester made from recycled bottles where possible.
Additional Resources:

The New Standard: Polyester (Zady)

Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester (Stockholm Environment Institute)

Why is recycled polyester considered a sustainable textile? (O Ecotextiles)

Inside the lonely fight against the biggest environmental problem you’ve never heard of. (The Guardian)

Well dressed? The present and future sustainability of clothing and textiles in the United Kingdom. (University of Cambridge)

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