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    Is Polyester Plastic? Health Risks and Environmental Impact

    There seem to be endless ways that we are unaware of the horrific impact that the things we buy, use, and consume have on our health and environment.

    From PFAS in our cookware to sulfates in popular shampoos, these truths have been a wake-up call for many.

    But one particularly startling revelation is discovering that nearly 95% of the average wardrobe is made of the same thing as disposable water bottles.

    A closer look at the tags on the garments in most closets reveals a common denominator. 

    ist_polyester_plastikPolyester. Polyester. POLYESTER.

    Wait a second... Is polyester plastic??

    This can't be good.

    So much of the world's wardrobe is made up of polyester fabrics - 52%, to be exact! And so much of it ends up in the landfill.

    When you consider the global crisis of plastic pollution and the fact that this material poses health risks to some who wear it, it becomes painfully clear that polyester clothing is a major problem.

    Are the clothes in your closet turning you and your family into walking, talking pieces of plastic?

    In this article, we'll navigate these (microplastic-filled) waters to discover what exactly polyester is, the implications of these synthetic fibers, and explore better alternatives while we're at it!

    What Exactly is Polyester?

    At this point, maybe you've checked the tags in your own wardrobe and saw "polyester" aplenty.

    But what is polyester really?

    When we talk about polyester, we're delving into the world of synthetic polymers.

    In simpler terms, it's a type of plastic specifically derived from a category of polymers known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Yes, the same material used in making those ubiquitous plastic bottles!

    Photo of many plastic water bottles

    Image: Jonathan Chng (Unsplash)

    Here's a little breakdown...

    The Science Behind Polyester:

    • Polymer Basics: At its core, a polymer is a long, repeating chain of molecules. Polymers can be natural (like cellulose in plants) or synthetic (like polyester).
    • Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET): Polyester is primarily made from PET. This is created through a chemical reaction between two petroleum-derived substances: ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid.
    • Chemical Process: The process, known as polymerization, involves heating these substances to form long chains of molecules - the polymers. This is where the 'plastic' nature of polyester comes from.
    infographic of the manufacturing process of polyester

    The production of polyester is a journey through a maze of chemical reactions, each step leaving its mark on the planet. From the extraction of crude oil to the final textile product, the process is fraught with environmental hazards.

    Let's take a deeper look.

    The Environmental Cost of a Polyester Wardrobe

    The journey of polyester from a petroleum derivative to a wardrobe mainstay is a complex one.

    To understand the full scope of its impact, let's look at the process in two phases: the production process and its ongoing impact on the world.

    The Toll of Production

    Oil rigs on the ocean at sunset

    Image: Ben Wicks (Unsplash)

    Beginning with Crude Oil:

    The story of polyester starts with crude oil extraction. This process is not only energy-intensive but also leads to the depletion of a non-renewable resource.

    The extraction and refining of crude oil release harmful pollutants into the air and water, contributing to global warming and ecological damage.

    Chemical Transformation and Energy Consumption:

    Transforming petroleum into polyester involves a series of chemical reactions.

    The primary components, ethylene glycol, and terephthalic acid, are derived from petroleum and combined in a polymerization process to create polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

    This process is energy-hungry, contributing to the high carbon footprint of polyester. The energy used is often sourced from fossil fuels, further exacerbating the issue of greenhouse gas emissions.

    Fabric Production: Spinning Polyester into Fibers

    After the creation of PET, the next step is taking the raw material and turning it into fibers and then into fabric - a critical stage with it’s own environmental implications.

    • Melt Spinning: In the melt spinning process, PET pellets are melted and pushed through tiny holes to form long strands of polyester fiber. A significant amount of energy is required to maintain the temperature necessary for the melting process.
    • Drawing & Texturizing: The drawing process requires even more energy for maintaining certain temperatures while the fibers are drawn and strengthened, while the process of texturizing the fabric requires hazardous chemicals whose byproducts result in pollution of the air and water.
    • Weaving & Knitting: This process for polyester fabrics is less water intensive compared to natural fibers, however the water footprint of polyester is still significant when you consider the entire lifecycle and microplastic pollution.
    • Waste Generation: Offcuts and imperfect pieces from this stage often just end up as waste.

    Dyeing and Finishing

    Post-production polyester fabrics are often treated with various chemicals to enhance color, texture, and durability.
    The dyes used for polyester, known as disperse dyes, are particularly concerning due to their non-biodegradability and potential toxicity.
    These chemicals can leach into waterways during the dyeing process and from the finished products during washing, posing risks to aquatic life and contaminating water sources.

    The Ongoing Environmental Challenge

    Woman holding folded sweaters

    Image: Dan Gold (Unsplash)

    Durability is a Double-Edged Sword:

    One of polyester's most admired qualities becomes its biggest environmental drawback post-consumption.

    Polyester fibers are resistant to biodegradation, meaning they can linger in landfills for hundreds of years.

    As the fast fashion industry continues to churn out inexpensive polyester garments, the volume of textile waste in landfills grows exponentially. This non-biodegradable waste not only occupies vast amounts of landfill space but also contributes to the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as it slowly degrades.

    The Microplastic Menace:

    Perhaps the most insidious impact of polyester is its contribution to microplastic pollution.

    Every wash of polyester clothing releases thousands of tiny synthetic fibers. These microfibers, too small to be caught by wastewater treatment plants, make their way into rivers, lakes, and oceans.

    Once in the water, they are ingested by marine life, leading to physical and chemical harm. The accumulation of these microplastics in the marine environment is a growing concern, with studies indicating their presence in the deepest ocean trenches and most remote arctic ice.

    The implications for marine ecosystems are severe, and the potential for these microplastics to enter the human food chain through seafood consumption is a worrying prospect.

    Is Recycled Polyester A Viable Solution?


    You may have caught wind of the conversation that has been gaining some traction around recycled polyester as a sustainable solution to the issues of polyester fabric.

    Recycled polyester, made from post-consumer plastic like water bottles, is often touted as a more sustainable option, but as we've seen, there are many aspects to the challenges we face with polyester, and we need a holistic approach.

    While recycled polyester helps solve one facet of the situation, it doesn't address them all.

    Recycled materials like recycled plastic bottles are saved from ending up in landfills when they are made into new polyester fibers; however, this process is not without its own environmental costs:

    • The Recycling Process itself consumes energy and resources. It involves collecting, cleaning, and melting down the plastic, which can be an energy-intensive and polluting process just like that of polyester production from raw materials. Plus, the quality of polyester can degrade with each recycling cycle, potentially limiting its usability over time.
    • Microplastic Pollution remains a critical aspect to consider. Recycled polyester, just like virgin polyester, sheds microfibers when washed. These microfibers continue to contribute to the growing problem of microplastic pollution in our oceans and waterways.
    • The Need to Reduce the overall consumption of polyester and encourage the use of more sustainable materials in the first place can be overshadowed by the focus on recycling polyester. While recycling is a step in the right direction, it's not a panacea. The ultimate goal should be to reduce our reliance on plastic material – virgin or recycled – and shift towards more sustainable, biodegradable materials in our clothing.

    Recycled polyester offers some environmental benefits, but it's not a complete solution. A more comprehensive approach of focusing on reducing consumption, improving recycling technologies, and exploring alternative materials, is crucial for a truly sustainable future in fashion.


    Polyester and Health - A Hidden Concern

    While the environmental issues of polyester are well-documented, its impact on health is an area of growing concern.

    Polyester's synthetic nature means it lacks the breathability of natural fibers, potentially leading to skin irritation and discomfort. This is particularly concerning for those with sensitive skin or allergies, as the fabric can trigger reactions such as textile dermatitis.

    The chemicals used in the manufacturing process of polyester, including dyes and finish resins, can also pose health risks to the consumer.

    While safety regulations are in place, the long-term effects of exposure to these chemicals are not fully understood. This raises questions about the safety of polyester, especially in children's clothing, where skin sensitivity and health are paramount.

    So Why Has Polyester Become So Prevalent in Our Clothing?

    Its rise to fame can be attributed to:

    • Durability: Its molecular structure makes it strong and resistant to shrinking, wrinkling, and stretching.
    • Versatility: Polyester can mimic the feel and texture of natural fabrics like cotton or silk.
    • Care and Maintenance: It's easy to care for, machine washable, and quick-drying.
    • Cost-Effectiveness: Polyester is relatively inexpensive to produce, making it a popular choice for a wide range of clothing.

    These qualities make it ideal for a wide range of garments, from casual wear to high-performance athletic apparel. However, this convenience masks a darker truth and inspires the question:

    Is there a better alternative?

    Moving Towards Sustainable Fashion Choices


    Image: Seven Seven (Unsplash)

    In light of these concerns, shifting towards sustainable fashion choices and a  healthier non toxic lifestyle becomes imperative.

    This shift involves embracing materials that are kinder to both the planet and our health.

    Natural fibers such as wool, linen, and cotton are excellent alternatives. And when it comes to our little ones, choosing organic kids' clothes is a great idea. Organic cotton, for example, is grown without harmful pesticides and processed without toxic chemicals, making it a safer and more sustainable option.

    Choosing sustainable materials is not just about reducing environmental impact; it's about making a conscious decision for our health and the well-being of future generations. By opting for organic and natural fibers, we can reduce our reliance on synthetic materials like polyester fabric.

    Rethinking Our Wardrobe for a Sustainable Future

    Mother and daughter dancing outside in their organic cotton clothes

    Image @ Ricarda Schüller

    In exploring the question, "Is polyester plastic?" we've unraveled some uncomfortable truths.

    From its petroleum-based origins to its contribution to microplastic pollution and potential health risks, the impact of polyester extends far beyond our closets. It's clear that our relationship with this ubiquitous fabric needs a thoughtful reevaluation for a sustainable future.

    As we navigate towards more eco-conscious choices, our decisions about our wardrobes are crucial.

    For adults and children alike, opting for organic cotton clothing offers a safer, more environmentally friendly alternative.

    So, next time you're shopping for new clothes, consider the impact of your choices. Explore the Orbasics collection of adults' and kids' organic cotton clothes for options that are kind to the Earth and gentle on your skin.

    Together, we can make a difference, one garment at a time.

    Lauren Eaton  
    Lauren Eaton is a dedicated mom to her vivacious 16-month-old, Quinn, who fuels her passion for making sustainable choices for a better future. By day, she runs a farm-to-table restaurant, serving nourishing meals to her community. By night, she shares her eco-conscious wisdom on her blog, Whether she's curating local cuisine or blogging about responsible living, Lauren is always inspired to act for the good of her family and the planet.

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