Polyester yarns already make up nearly half the world’s clothing and even this figure is set to increase, as the athleisure, activewear and performance wear clothing trend becomes even more popular with consumers looking for stretchable and resistant garments.
This would mean good news for the casual wear segment, if only polyester was a more sustainable and environment-friendly textile option. Being made from Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), which is the most common type of plastic in the world, it remains an environmentally harmful plastic that will eventually become waste and increase the global microplastic problem.
As the most versatile, cheapest, and most functional material in the garment industry, extensive research is now being carried out about the environmental damage of polyester yarns while still using it wisely in the apparel manufacturing process. Since the extraction of synthetic fabrics is an energy-intensive process that requires a lot of crude oil and releases emissions, the manufacturing units are an environmental hazard.
“In the air, there are volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and acid gases such as hydrogen chloride, which cause respiratory diseases. Monomers, solvents and other by products of polyester production are emitted into wastewater from manufacturing facilities," explains the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), whose mission is to protect human health and the environment.
With the textile recycling industry still in its nascent stage, while blend mixes such as cotton-polyester remain unable to be separated in large quantities to cover manufacturing costs, the environmental pollution issue rears its ugly head time and again. With no significant fiber-to-fiber recycling in the manufacturing process or an umbrella organization of textile recyclers, the sustainability issue is an unsolved one. Testing phases for replacement fibers Many apparel manufacturing companies are now carrying out research work for replacing polyester using various methods. While some are working on biobased base materials where a pilot using corn instead of petroleum is the focus, others are implementing commercial systems in which textile waste is reused as new raw materials. Some organizations such as Accelerating Circularity Europe are currently studying how exactly fibers behave and how often they can be recycled in a circular economy action plan.
Currently, the first testing phase for post-consumer and post-industrial polyester textiles as sources of mechanically and chemically recycled virgin fibers is underway in their labs under the direction of Petra Schweiger and industry experts are hoping that they find a better sustainability approach.
Swiss giant Hugo Boss has currently developed an algae-based continuous filament yarn made from cellulose that is expected to replace man-made fibers over some years. "In our estimation, this product is the most convincing in terms of its versatility, quality, and recyclability, and we believe it can provide a sustainable solution to the polyester problem in the long term. In the long term, we want to replace this polyester fiber completely, because we see the resource-intensive raw material extraction and, of course, the microplastic and residual waste problem," points out CSR manager Andreas Streubig.
All polyester yarns are not harmful though as the typical polyester fabrics used in rain jackets, backpacks and sneakers emit negligible microplastic but knits and fleeces emit fiber particles as soon as they are worn. Stretchy sportswear doesn’t wash well although using natural cotton fibers is not an alternative here. So it is a complex fiber which needs to be developed further. Although recycled polyester as a sustainable solution is currently just a greenwashing misleading solution, research is making sure that the day is not far off when this becomes a reality.
By Fashionating World