To some people the answer to this question might be obvious.
But, we thought we’d dive in quickly and outline specifically why polyester is really not 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 on the market.
It is one of the least sustainable and eco friendly for a few reasons:
- it is mainly derived from petroleum and the oil manufacturing industry is the world’s largest pollutant (and fossil fuels are not renewable). Having said that, there is recyclable polyester available now, which is made from recycled plastic bottles
- it uses a lot of water, a lot of energy and has a high carbon footprint
- it uses many chemicals, dyes, finishers and so on during the production process
- polyester is not biodegradable
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.
More eco friendly and sustainable fibres to consider might be organic cotton, organic bamboo, hemp, TENCEL and flax/linen.
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.
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)
- Crude oil is extracted at the Extraction stage
- 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.
You can read more about it on pages 10 and 11 at https://waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/WFA_Polyester_and__Viscose_2017.pdf
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 Cotton, & 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.
Read more about the environmental consequences of polyester production at https://www.peacefuldumpling.com/why-polyester-production-damages-the-environment
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