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Polyester: The Main Ingredient of the Fast Fashion Industry

The fast fashion industry pumps out mass quantities of clothing made from synthetic fabrics because they are the most cost-effective. However, synthetic fabrics are essentially plastic-based, which poses many environmental implications. The primary component of synthetic (sometimes marketed as vegan alternatives to) fur, fleece, silk, chiffon, and velvet. Polyester is also commonly blended with cotton, spandex, and other fibers to increase durability.

photo of oil drilling at sunset

While polyester has certain advantages, including durability and affordability, it's important to note that it is a synthetic fiber derived from petrochemicals. The environmental impact of polyester production and its non-biodegradable nature have led to increased interest in sustainable alternatives, including recycled polyester and bio-based polymers.

The production of polyester, like many synthetic materials, has environmental drawbacks. Here are some reasons why the production of polyester is considered harmful to the environment:

  • Resource Intensive: The production of polyester involves the use of non-renewable resources, particularly petroleum. Extracting and processing fossil fuels contribute to environmental degradation and are associated with greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Energy Consumption: The manufacturing process of polyester is energy-intensive. The polymerization of petrochemicals and the subsequent production of polyester fibers require a significant amount of energy, contributing to carbon emissions and environmental impact.

  • Chemical Processes: Polyester production involves the use of various chemicals, including antimony, which is a heavy metal. The release of such chemicals during manufacturing can have adverse effects on air and water quality.

  • Water Usage and Pollution: The dyeing and finishing processes of polyester fabrics often require substantial amounts of water. The discharge of wastewater containing chemicals used in these processes can lead to water pollution and harm aquatic ecosystems.

  • Microfiber Pollution: When polyester fabrics are laundered, tiny synthetic fibers known as microfibers can shed into the water. These microfibers, being plastic particles, contribute to microplastic pollution in oceans and water bodies, impacting marine life.

  • Landfill Issues: Polyester is not biodegradable, and discarded polyester items can persist in landfills for extended periods, contributing to the accumulation of non-biodegradable waste.

  • Limited Recycling: While polyester can be recycled, the process is not as straightforward as recycling natural fibers like cotton. Additionally, not all polyester products are recycled, leading to a substantial amount of waste.

photo of fast fashion assembly line

Efforts are being made to address some of these environmental concerns, including the development of recycled polyester (rPET) made from post-consumer plastic bottles. Recycling polyester can help reduce the demand for virgin materials and mitigate some environmental impacts. However, challenges remain, and the overall environmental impact of polyester production is a complex issue influenced by various factors, including production methods, energy sources, and waste management practices. Sustainable alternatives and innovations in textile production are needed to minimize the environmental footprint of synthetic materials.

To highlight the complexity and inorganic nature of polyester, here is a more specific outline of how polyester is made. Feel free to skim this section, as it is full of chemistry and words that are hard to pronounce. The point is to emphasize that synthetic fabrics are obviously unnatural and thereby not biodegradable. Moreover, polyester begins as crude oil which needs to be drilled from the Earth - think oil companies & gasoline! - and this process is extremely energy intensive.

diagram of process of polyester production

The Production of Polyester:

  • Raw Materials:

  • Petrochemicals: The primary raw material for polyester is derived from crude oil. Petrochemicals like ethylene and propylene are extracted from oil through a refining process.

  • Acids and Alcohols: The two main types of polyester, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polyethylene naphthalate (PEN), are produced using either terephthalic acid or dimethyl terephthalate. Ethylene glycol is used as the alcohol component.

  • Polymerization:

  • The basic building blocks, terephthalic acid (or dimethyl terephthalate) and ethylene glycol, undergo a chemical reaction called esterification or transesterification to form the polyester polymer.

  • The reaction produces a monomer called bis(2-hydroxyethyl) terephthalate (BHET) for PET. In the case of PEN, naphthalene dicarboxylic acid is used instead of terephthalic acid.

  • Polycondensation:

  • The monomer undergoes a polycondensation reaction, where the polyester chains grow in length through the elimination of water or alcohol molecules. This process leads to the formation of long chains of polyester molecules.

  • Polymer Solidification:

  • The resulting polymer is in a molten form after polycondensation. It is then solidified through various methods, such as extrusion or pelletization, to obtain a solid material.

  • Polymer Filament Formation (for Fibers):

  • If the polyester is intended for fiber production, the solidified polymer is melted and then extruded through spinnerets to form filaments. These filaments are then stretched and cooled to enhance their strength and elasticity.

  • Polymer Processing (for Other Forms):

  • For other applications like film, sheet, or molded products, the solidified polymer may undergo further processing, such as extrusion, injection molding, or blow molding, to achieve the desired form.

  • Finishing:

  • The polyester product may undergo finishing processes, such as heat setting, dyeing, or coating, depending on its intended use.

We understand that there are many desirable qualities of polyester clothing and we upcycle polyester garments almost daily. The easiest way to boycott this toxic industry is to not buy newly produced products made of synthetic materials - this includes purchasing new fabric at the fabric store. The easiest way to keep this non-biodegradable material out of landfills, is to purchase secondhand clothing and fabric.

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