Is Polyester Bad for the Environment?

Updated: Sep 18, 2019

Polyester is a generalized term for any fabric or textile made using polyester yarns or fibers. It is a shortened name for a synthetic, man-made polymer, which is most commonly referred to as a type called polyethylene terephthalate (PET). It is made by mixing ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid. Basically, polyester is a kind of plastic.

Polyester is very versatile, for that reason it has become a popular alternative in fashion, but its environmental impacts are very important though. Before discussing the environmental impacts of this material, it is worth discussing its characteristics to understand why it is such a popular option.

First invented in 1941 by British chemists John Rex Whinfield and James Tennant Dickson, and becoming increasingly popular in the 1970’s, due to the way it was advertised as “a miracle fiber that can be worn for 68 days straight without ironing, and still look presentable,” this fabric has always had some controversy surrounding it.

It is frequently used for its anti-wrinkle properties. The clothing made of this textile material does not need to be ironed to maintain its shape, it is very convenient for the user to maintain it. The high quality polyester lasts and maintains the quality of its surface. However, the vast majority in the market is of very poor quality and is used by manufacturers because it's a cheap alternative to natural fibers. Most of the garments made of this fabric are fast fashion, meaning that they are of very low quality and will not last long.

Also, polyester is a petroleum-based synthetic fiber. Therefore, it is made from a non-renewable resource that consumes a lot of energy. Petroleum products are used as raw materials. It’s estimated that it takes about 104 million barrels of oil for PET production each year – that’s 70 million barrels just to produce the virgin polyester used in fabrics. That means most polyester – 70 million barrels worth –  is manufactured specifically to be made into fibers.

Polyester is not biodegradable and will persist in the ecosystem even when it finally breaks, research shows that synthetic garments are the biggest source of microplastic pollution in oceans and rivers. The environmental impacts are significant. The fact that it is cheap is probably the biggest culprit in terms of the high environmental cost of fashion.

Some tips for a more sustainable wardrobe:

- Avoid adding new polyester garments to your closet unless they are made of recycled polyester or recycled plastics.

- Reuse your clothes, giving them more life is a great alternative for a more environmentally friendly solution.

- Wash your clothes in a GoopyFriend bag, polyester releases micoplastic into the water when washed. The bag is a scientifically approved solution against microplastic pollution from washing.

- If you have to get rid of old polyester clothes, find out where you can recycle them so that the polyester stocks do not end up in a landfills.