It looks like the plastic bottle is here to stay, despite publicity about bisphenol A and other chemicals that may leach into liquids inside the bottle. The amount of plastic used to make the bottles is so enormous that estimates of total amount of plastic used is staggering. Earth911.com says that over 2,456 million pounds of PET was available for recycling in the United States in 2009. Any way you look at it, that’s a lot of bottles.
Those bottles exist – they’re not going away, except perhaps to the landfill. So shouldn’t we be able to use them somehow?
We have already posted blogs about plastics (especially recycled plastics) last year ( to read them, click here, here, and here ) so you know where we stand on the use of plastics in fabrics. All in all, plastic recycling is not what it’s touted to be. Even if recycled under the best of conditions, a plastic bottle or margarine tub will probably have only one additional life. Since it can’t be made into another food container, your Snapple bottle will become a “durable good,” such as carpet or fiberfill for a jacket. Your milk bottle will become a plastic toy or the outer casing on a cell phone. Those things, in turn, will eventually be thrown away.
So the reality is that polyester bottles exist, and using them any way we can before sending them to the landfill will prevent the use of more crude oil, which we’re trying to wean ourselves from, right? Recycling some of them into fiber seems to be a better use for the bottles than land filling them.
Plastic bottles (the kind that had been used for some kind of consumer product) are the feedstock for what is known as “post-consumer recycled polyester”. Even though plastic recycling appears to fall far short of its promise, recycled polyester, also called rPET, is now accepted as a “sustainable” product in the textile market, because it’s a message that can be easily understood by consumers – and polyester is much cheaper than natural fibers. So manufacturers, in their own best interest, have promoted “recycled polyester” as the sustainable wonder fabric, which has achieved pride of place as a green textile option in interiors.
Recycled post consumer polyester is made from bottles – which have been collected, sorted by hand, and then melted down and formed into chips, sometimes called flakes. These chips or flakes are then sent to the yarn spinning mills, where they’re melted down, often mixed with virgin polyester, and and spun into yarn, which is why you’ll often see a fabric that claims it’s made of 30% post consumer polyester and 70% virgin polyester, for example.
But today the supply chains for recycled polyester are not transparent, and if we are told that the resin chips we’re using to spin fibers are made from bottles – or from industrial scrap or old fleece jackets – we have no way to verify that. Once the polymers are at the melt stage, it’s impossible to tell where they came from. So the yarn/fabric could be virgin polyester or it could be recycled. Many so called “recycled” polyester yarns may not really be from recycled sources at all because – you guessed it! – the process of recycling is much more expensive than using virgin polyester. Unfortunately not all companies are willing to pay the price to offer a real green product, but they sure do want to take advantage of the perception of green. So when you see a label that says a fabric is made from 50% polyester and 50% recycled polyester – well, (until now) there was absolutely no way to tell if that was true.
Along with the fact that whether what you’re buying is really made from recycled yarns – or not – most people don’t pay any attention to the processing of the fibers. Let’s just assume, for argument’s sake, that the fabric (which is identified as being made of 100% recycled polyester) is really made from recycled polyester. But unless they tell you specifically otherwise, it is processed conventionally.
What does that mean? It can be assumed that the chemicals used in processing – the optical brighteners, texturizers, dyes, softeners, detergents, bleaches and all others – probably contain some of the chemicals which have been found to be harmful to living things. In fact the chemicals used, if not optimized, may very well contain the same heavy metals, AZO dyestuffs and/or finish chemicals that have been proven to cause much human suffering.
It’s widely thought that water use needed to recycle polyester is low, but who’s looking to see that this is true? The weaving, however, uses the same amount of water (about 500 gallons to produce 25 yards of upholstery weight fabric) – so the wastewater is probably expelled without treatment, adding to our pollution burden. And it’s widely touted that recycling polyester uses just 30 – 50% of the energy needed to make virgin polyester – but is that true in every case? There is no guarantee that the workers who produce the fabric are being paid a fair wage – or even that they are working in safe conditions. And finally there are issues specific to the textile industry:
- The base color of the recyled chips varies from white to creamy yellow. This makes it difficult to get consistent dyelots, especially for pale shades, necessitating more dyestuffs.
- In order to get a consistently white base, some dyers use chlorine-based bleaches.
- Dye uptake can be inconsistent, so the dyer would need to re-dye the batch. There are high levels of redyeing, leading to increased energy use.
- PVC is often used in PET labels and wrappers and adhesives. If the wrappers and labels from the bottles used in the post-consumer chips had not been properly removed and washed, PVC may be introduced into the polymer.
- Some fabrics are forgiving in terms of appearance and lend themselves to variability in yarns, such as fleece and carpets; fine gauge plain fabrics are much more difficult to achieve.
As the size of the recycled polyester market grows, we think the integrity of the sustainability claims for polyesters will become increasingly important. There has not been the same level of traceability for polyesters as there is for organically labeled products.
But now there is now a new, third party certification which is addressing these issues. The Global Recycle Standard (GRS), originated by Control Union and now administered by Textile Exchange (formerly Organic Exchange), is intended to establish independently verified claims as to the amount of recycled content in a yarn, with the important added dimension of prohibiting certain chemicals, requiring water treatment and upholding workers rights, holding the weaver to standards similar to those found in the Global Organic Textile Standard:
- Companies must keep full records of the use of chemicals, energy, water consumption and waste water treatment including the disposal of sludge;
- All prohibitied chemicals listed in GOTS are also prohibited in the GRS;
- All wastewater must be treated for pH, temperature, COD and BOD before disposal;
- There is an extensive section related to worker’s rights.
The GRS provides a track and trace certification system that ensures that the claims you make about a product can be officially backed up. It consists of a three-tiered system: Gold standard – products contain between 95 percent to 100 percent recycled material;Silver standard – products contain between 70 percent to 95 percent recycled product;Bronze standard – products have a minimum of 30 percent recycled content.
I have long been concerned about the rampant acceptance of recycled polyester as a green choice when no mention has been made of processing chemicals, water treatment or workers rights, so we welcome this new GRS certification, which allows us to be more aware of what we’re really buying when we try to “do good”.
5 thoughts on “Beyond natural fibers”
Thanks for following this issue and educating the rest of us.
Have you seen this: http://www.ted.com/talks/mike_biddle.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+TEDTalks_video+%28TEDTalks+Main+%28SD%29%29 ?
Thank You for this and all your informative articles. I depend on you as a source of trustworthy information.
I agree about PET. Anyone who has ever been around a camp fire where someone has thrown a plastic bottle into the fire understands that it can not be good for the environment to be melting these things no matter what the end product is. I think there may be some good uses for PET. Polyester has a place in water sports like surfing and skiing and rain gear. Other than clothing designed to repel water Polyester should be avoided. The idea that it is high tech athletic wear for sports that do not include water is a big fat marketing lie. Polyester, in almost all cases, decreases athletic performance. It does not wick moisture no matter how many times the label says it does. It does not breath raising the body temperature of the athlete way to high and since it does not hold moisture the athlete needs to continually sweet to cool down.
I have been working on creating a brand of Yoga clothing called “YOGiiZA”, Organic clothing for ORganic people™. We are going to great lengths to source Organic cotton for our athletic wear. We also are making sure Fair Labor standards are used in all our processes. Many other socially and environmentally responsible practices are at the core of what we believe in at YOGiiZA but i do not have enough time to write that book here. When we were just an idea we were approached by a large manufacturer in both textiles and garments who liked our brand concept and image. They offered to fund our brand up to 6 million dollars, but they wanted us to do it in PET, I refused. That was two years ago an we are almost ready to launch our Organic cotton brand. Starting a Brand like ours is much easier said than done. We end up being responsible for both land and people and you have to get your hands dirty.
Thank you again and please keep writing.
I trust your findings and rely on you as a valuable source of information
Mark Thomas Oliver
The General at YOGiiZA, Organic clothing for Organic people™
fantastic articles on plastics and polyesters
Have you written on the issues of microfibre plastic pollution? It seems if polyester is a source of microfibre pollution then any eco-friendly claim is void.
Hi Paul: The plastic pollution is not limited to microfibers, unfortunately. And yes, we did do a post on the subject: https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2012/02/18/synthetic-fibers-and-our-oceans/
But maybe it’s time to run it again?