Recycled Polyester | Is it Safe for our Oceans?


Polyester, polyethylene terephthalate, is a synthetic fibre man-made through a high energy process of chemical reactions using a combination of coal, ethylene (from petroleum), air and water. Every single element involved in this process involves heavy exploitation of natural and human resources. Beginning of the polyester lifecycle, two to three times more carbon emissions than cotton are emitted and then at the end of their lifecycle end up accumulating pollution as they don't biodegrade, posing a threat to wildlife in the form of consumption and entanglement.  

There are different types of polyester ranging from soft polyester material to varying density of polyester made products but the one with least environmental impact is recycled polyester. Widely classified under sustainable fabrics, recycled polyester synthetic is the only synthetic fibre we agree to be used in the apparel industry. Even though it requires energy to convert old plastics into new recycled fibres, the energy consumption is nowhere close to the huge tonnes required in producing virgin polyester made fabrics. There is no need for more coal and petrol to be extracted from the earth and it saves already existing plastic from going to landfills to remain there for hundreds of years.

Around 10-12 PET bottles are recycled and 2,700 litres of water are saved in each recycled polyester made t-shirt. Recycled polyester made from PET bottles are shredded into flakes, flakes then melted and converted to yarn to be knitted, cut and sewn into a sustainable article of clothing. Sustainable, up until, a customer buys it and washes it; releasing hundreds of thousands of microfibres which are very small pieces of plastic that never biodegrade. Washing clothes releases 500,000 tons of microfibres, approximately 50 billion PET bottles, into the ocean every year. 35% of all microplastics originated from the laundering of synthetic textiles according to a 2017 report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUNC). They come off of synthetic clothing, mainly from polyester made hot off the washing machine, and get released with the water.

An estimated 31% of plastic pollution is said to be microplastics in the total plastic pollution in the ocean. Microfibres exist alongside microbeads but they pose a stronger threat to fish and other aquatic animals. Studies show that in the Ottawa River, 95% of microplastics were microfibres.

These stats really break down how polyester made fabric, a revolutionary fabric that plays a major role in every industry, serves as the biggest hazard once discarded into the ocean in both, pre-consumer and post-consumer stages. Not only do they affect the toxic levels of water but also emit an odour similar to some species’ natural food. The fishes and other marine wildlife either eat them and die or have health issues from their consumption. The microscopic plastic fibres end up in their stomachs and stay there, often giving the impression of a full stomach to its aquatic consumer, whereas they do not receive the needed nutrients and eventually starve to death. The fibres dangerously toxic to any creature that consumes it, due to natural food cycle, end up in our plates as seafood; with the toxins now residing in our bellies. 

So, answer to the question: With Polyester made sustainable, are oceans now polyester safe? The answer is no. Until we find a feasible and widely applicable way to keep microfibre making its way from our washing machines to the ocean - the oceans, marine life and human life aren’t safe from toxic plastic consumption.