In this guide, we outline whether or not polyester might be a sustainable or eco friendly fabric.
*NOTE: this guide focuses on the main type of polyester used in polyester fabric – the synthetic fibre, PET.
Summary – Is Polyester Sustainable & Eco Friendly As A Fabric?
No. Not compared to other fabrics available on the market – especially natural fibres.
It is one of the least sustainable and eco friendly for a few reasons:
- it is mainly derived from oil feedstock (petroleum) and the oil manufacturing industry is the world’s largest polluters, and involves significant mining. Fossil fuels are also not renewable. [Having said this, there is recyclable polyester available now, which is made from recycled plastic bottles. This offers at least one alternate option for a feedstock material]
- it uses a lot of water (only surpassed by some cotton farms in India using a lot of water), uses a lot of energy (behind only Acrylic and Nylon fibres), and has a high carbon footprint (much higher than cotton)
- it uses many chemicals, dyes, finishers and other chemicals during the production process
- polyester is not biodegradable
Some sources indicate that for overall sustainability, it might be worth looking at GOTS certified cotton, recycled cotton, 100% natural linen, and companies that are very transparent with their supply and production processes, or have a range of recognized sustainability certifications across various stages of their supply/production process (growing, production, dying, bleaching, finishing, weaving, and so on), with TENCEL’s lyocell and modal fibres being one potential example of this. But, there’s also the consumer usage, maintenance and waste/recycling stages to consider as well. Some bamboos and hemps could be reasonably sustainable when sustainably/responsibly grown, and combining that with closed loop processes, naturally derived production chemicals, and similarly more natural/organic and eco friendly post-growing processes and chemicals used.
Having said that, polyester doesn’t require pesticides, fertilizer and the agricultural inputs or agricultural land that a fibre like cotton does (although mining inputs, land degradation and potential pollution can offset this). And like polyester, a lot of natural fibres made into textiles often aren’t recycled due to difficulties recycling clothing and textiles.
Some people make the point that polyester might need less washing, ironing and after purchase care than some natural fabrics, and has a lower eco and sustainability footprint because of this, but this is a general point and really depends on the person and fabric item in question.
There’s also the consideration that synthetic fibres are the most commonly used fibres in the textile industry at roughly 63 per cent of the material input for textiles production worldwide – with polyester (55 per cent), followed by nylon (five per cent), and acrylic (two per cent) (independent.co.uk). In the US, cotton’s competitive share of U.S. produced textile end-uses shows a steady increase, presently standing at approximately 34% (cotton.org). [Read more about some of the most commonly used textile fibres in this guide]. There are employment, revenue and business considerations here that impact the economy. Polyester can also be cheaper for the consumer compared to natural fibres (which can benefit low income earners).
Additionally, synthetic fibres may be able to achieve traits and properties (due to synthetic manufacturing) that natural fibres can’t.
So, with polyester’s general lack of eco friendliness, there’s also textile upkeep, economic benefits, and the ability to modify textile traits that comes with them.
It can be a tradeoff.
The above summary and the information found in this guide is a generalisation only.
* It’s important to note that some polyester production systems can differ from others, and polyester can be combined with a natural fibre for example (like cotton), which can change the overall impact or eco footprint of a product or piece of clothing.
These factors and others can impact the final sustainability and eco friendliness of any particular product.
There’s also the social impact, economics and practicality to consider. Just because something is eco friendly and sustainable to produce – it doesn’t mean that it is good for employment, profitable or even practical to produce (for businesses and workers) or use (for consumers). So, there can be a weighing up of product priorities, preferences (for buyers, sellers, and society) and conflicts of interest to consider (political and corporate agendas can sometimes play a part too for example).
What Is Polyester Made From?
Multiple polymers made from ethylene glycol (derived from petroleum) and terephthalic acid.
It’s essentially a type of plastic.
How Polyester Is Processed (Full Lifecycle)
A general polyester production lifecycle might look like this:
- Crude oil is extracted at the Extraction stage (oil is the feedstock for polyester)
- At the Refinery stage, Ethane and Naphtha are made
- At the Petrochemical stage, Ethylene Oxide, P-xylene, Monoethylene glycol and Teraphtalic Acid (among other petrochemicals) are used
- At the Polymerization and Spinning stage, polyester is created in the form of staple fibres or filament yarns
Explaining that another way … Crude oil or gas is processed at refineries into naphtha which is subsequently used for petrochemical production to obtain mono-ethylene glycol (MEG) and terephtalic acid (TPA) or dimetyl terephthalate (DMT)15. These raw materials then go through a polymerisation process, which results in the production of polyester (PET – Polyethylene terephthalate) chips, filament yarn or staple fibres.
Note that in addition to the above process, there is also recycled polyester that has come out recently, which is made from recycled plastic bottles.
Water Footprint Of Polyester (How Much Water It Takes To Make It)
- The water footprint of polyester can be as high as 71,000 cubic metres of water per tonne of fibre
- On average, polyester has the highest water footprint [compared to cotton and viscose], only surpassed by some conventional cotton farms in India, in which highly toxic pesticides are used.
Carbon Footprint Of Polyester, & Energy Use
- In terms of KG of CO2 emissions per ton of spun fiber, polyester and synthetic fibres have one of the highest carbon footprints.
- Polyester has 9.52kg of CO2 emissions per ton of spun fiber compared to cotton at 5.90kg
- In terms of energy use in MJ per KG of fiber, polyester rates only just behind Acrylic and Nylon.
- It uses 125 MJ, compared to cotton at 55
How Much Pesticide & Fertiliser Does Polyester Use
None – polyester does not come from a naturally grown fibre like cotton for example that grows in soil.
Polyester, & Soil Health & Land Degradation
Mining is one of the biggest causes of erosion, desertification and land degradation.
The oil extraction process required to make polyester contributes to land degradation in this way.
The Yield Of Polyester, & Efficiency To Process Polyester
Because of the amount of energy and water needed to make polyester, it is not as efficient of a fibre as say for example hemp or bamboo.
How Many Chemicals Does Polyester Use In The Processing Stage?
Polyester uses chemicals throughout essentially every stage of the processing process.
There are also chemicals used to dye and finish polyester.
Pollution Of Land, Air & Water By Polyester Growing & Processing
Pollution of land, air and water can happen at various stages of the polyester production process.
There’s obviously the oil extraction phase.
But, chemicals used can contaminate wastewater, and if that wastewater is not dumped properly (or re-used), it can contaminate other water and soil sources it comes into contact with.
Air pollution is also possible.
There can also be the issues of microplastics from polyester clothing.
Impact Of Polyester On Humans & Human Health
- The production process of polyester can mean workers are exposed to toxic chemicals
- Monomers in polyester can have toxic effects
- The production of polyester uses harmful chemicals, including carcinogens
Impact Of Polyester On Wildlife & Animals
From oil extraction, to the rest of the polyester production process, there can be disruption or removal of animal habitats, and releasing of chemicals into the water and soil that animals live in and on.
Is Polyester Biodegradable?
- No. It can take up to 200 years for polyester fabric to decompose.
Recyclability Of Polyester
- Up until recently you couldn’t recycle polyester over and over again
- But, some companies now are coming up with closed loop processes that allow you to recycle polyester cotton blend clothing