The Promise and Pitfalls of Recycled Polyester

Recycled polyester, also known as rPET, is a synthetic material that has gained popularity in recent years due to its perceived sustainability benefits. While recycled polyester does offer some environmental advantages over traditional, or virgin polyester, it still has several significant drawbacks that make it far from a perfect solution.

One of the primary advantages of recycled polyester is that it reduces the amount of plastic waste in the environment. Recycled polyester is made from post-consumer plastic waste, such as plastic bottles and packaging, that would otherwise end up in landfills or oceans. By using recycled materials, clothing brands can reduce their carbon footprint and conserve natural resources. However, the production of recycled polyester still has some environmental consequences that should not be overlooked.

First, we need to address the fact that all plastic is bad, but bottled water is one of the worst culprits. Ideally, a plastic water bottle should be recycled into another plastic water bottle. This is true circularity since this process can be repeated over and over.  But, when you turn a plastic bottle into a garment, it means that the bottle only has one more life because in this day and age, that garment won’t get recycled. Now, in an ideal world that garment would be kept for years – much longer than the lifespan of a plastic bottle – but with the rise of fast fashion and quick trend turnarounds, we only wear our clothes on average 7 times! And therein lies the problem.

Then, we need to consider the process of recycling plastic into polyester which requires significant amounts of energy and water, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution. Additionally, recycled polyester clothing still sheds microfibers when washed, which can harm marine life and enter the food chain, and are now showing up in humans.

Another issue with recycled polyester is the lack of transparency in its supply chain. Many recycled polyester garments are produced in countries with lax environmental and labor regulations, meaning that workers, already working in poor conditions, are exposed to hazardous chemicals. As there is a lack of standardized certification for recycled polyester, it makes it really difficult for consumers to assess the environmental and social impacts of the clothing they purchase.

Thankfully there is progress being made toward garment to garment recycling, which means that in the coming years we should see clothing on the market that was made from a percentage of recycled polyester clothing – most likely blended with recycled PET. Such an example can be found in the laundry hamper we made in our pilot with Canadian Tire and other local partners. The final product is made from 40% recycled polyester clothing that was collected through Sport Chek stores from its customers, blended with 50% rPET (plastic bottles) and then an unavoidable 10% virgin polyester which acts as a bonding agent. 

To complicate matters further, product labeling doesn’t distinguish between plastic bottles and recycled clothing! It is all the same – “recycled polyester”. Confused? We are too. This is why we are hoping to engage the Textile Labeling Act around distinguishing the two, because we believe that the public would want to know if they are buying a sweater made from other sweaters, or a sweater made from plastic water bottles. As recycling technology improves and scales, we hope that eventually we can replace the need to use plastic bottles as feedstock for fashion and can truly close the loop on our clothes.

One last thing to note is that recycled polyester – no matter what it is made from – is not biodegradable, meaning that just like its virgin counterpart, it will persist in landfills for hundreds of years, releasing harmful chemicals into the environment as it breaks down. While recycling plastic waste into clothing does reduce plastic waste in the short term, it does not solve the underlying systemic problem of overconsumption, and the need for a more circular economy.

In conclusion, while recycled polyester offers some environmental benefits compared to traditional polyester, it is not a perfect solution…yet. The fashion industry must continue to seek out more sustainable alternatives to polyester and work towards a more circular economy that reduces waste and conserves natural resources (see this great example of a plant-based product).

Consumers play an important role in all of this. By choosing clothing made from more sustainable materials, supporting brands with transparent supply chains, reducing their overall consumption of clothing and by working together, we can create a more sustainable and responsible fashion industry that benefits both people and the planet.

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