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  • Gianni Romano

Exploring Sustainable Polyester Alternatives

Updated: Jan 6


Sustainable Polyester Alternatives


In the world of synthetic fibres, polyester stands as a cornerstone of modern textiles. Known for its durability, versatility and low cost, it's a ubiquitous presence in our wardrobes. Yet, as environmental consciousness grows, it's crucial to scrutinise polyester's impact. In this article, we explore a brief history of polyester, review the challenges associated with conventional polyester production and explore more sustainable alternatives.


The Rise of Polyester

Polyester, a synthetic fibre derived from petroleum, represents a remarkable evolution in textile technology. Its journey began in the early 20th century, but it wasn't until 1941 that British chemists John Whinfield and James Dickson, working at the Calico Printer's Association of Manchester, developed the first commercially viable polyester fiber, Terylene. This invention marked a significant milestone, paving the way for the material's widespread use.


Polyester's initial appeal lay in its unique properties: it was strong, resistant to stretching and shrinking, and quick to dry. These characteristics made it an ideal material for various applications, ranging from clothing to home furnishings. The post-World War II era saw a surge in polyester's popularity, as manufacturers and consumers alike were drawn to its durability and ease of maintenance.


The popularity of polyester has continued to grow since its introduction, most notably over the last 50 years. Polyester has been widely adopted by the fashion industry due to its low cost and flexibility. Since the 80's, the rate of increase in polyester production has been the single biggest driver behind global textile usage.



World fiber production 1980-2025 Source: Tecon OrbiChem [30]

World fibre production 1980-2025

Source: Tecon OrbiChem


The Polyester Predicament

Polyester, a petroleum-based fabric, is celebrated for its strength, wrinkle resistance, and affordability.


Environmental Footprint

The production of conventional polyester is energy-intensive, relying heavily on fossil fuels. The carbon footprint of a polyester shirt is greater than that of a cotton shirt (5.5 kg vs. 4.3 kg of CO2 equivalent). In 2015, polyester production for textiles released about 706 billion kg of greenhouse gases, equivalent to the annual emissions of 185 coal-fired power plants (World Resources Institute).


Microplastic Pollution

Fibrous microplastics (FMPs) released from synthetic textiles during laundering are a significant source of microplastic pollution in the environment. Studies show that a single laundry load can release hundreds of thousands of microfibres into waterways (International Union for Conservation of Nature).


Recycling Challenges

After years of growth, the share of all recycled fibres slightly decreased from around 8.5% in 2021 to 7.9% in 2022. This was primarily due to a decrease in the market share of recycled polyester, 99% of which was made from plastic bottles, from 15% in 2021 to 14% in 2022. Reasons for this decrease include growing competition for PET bottles as feedstock and systematic challenges in scaling textile-to-textile recycling​ (Textile Exchange).



recycled polyester

Recycled Polyester - A Step Towards Sustainability

Recycled polyester, made from post-consumer plastic bottles and industrial waste, seems to offer a more sustainable alternative.


Resource Efficiency

Recycling polyester uses significantly less energy and water. It's estimated that recycled polyester reduces energy consumption by up to 45% compared to virgin polyester (Textile Exchange).


Quality and Market Growth

Advances in technology have improved the quality of recycled polyester, making it comparable to its virgin counterpart. The market for recycled polyester is growing, with most major brands increasingly incorporating it into their products in a massive way.


Certifications & Standards

Major international certifications like the Global Recycled Standard (GRS) and the Recycled Claim Standard (RCS) exist to provide assurances to brands, consumers and suppliers about the authenticity of the recycled content in their textiles.


Challenges

Whilst recycled polyester is widely accessible, cheap and may have a lower carbon footprint than virgin polyester, there's no hiding from the fact that whilst recycled, the synthetic fibre is still releasing microplastics into the environment. Recycling plastic bottles for textiles has also come under scrutiny recently, some argue that it's not the best option for the environment as a whole, because it takes plastic bottles out of a closed loop recycling system and into a less sustainable system.


polyester alternative

Biodegradable Polyester - A Look to The Future

Biodegradable polyester represents a groundbreaking shift in synthetic fibre technology. Biodegradable polyester is often made from renewable resources like corn starch, sugarcane, or other biomass sources. Polylactic acid (PLA) is a common type of biodegradable polyester derived from corn starch or sugarcane.


Decomposition Process

Unlike traditional polyester, biodegradable versions can break down under specific conditions, reducing long-term environmental impact. The rate and efficiency of degradation depend on factors like temperature, humidity, and the presence of microorganisms.


Environmental Impact

Biodegradable polyesters are considered more eco-friendly than traditional plastics because they can reduce the accumulation of waste in landfills and oceans. However, their production and degradation processes still have environmental impacts, such as greenhouse gas emissions and the use of agricultural resources.


Innovation and Challenges

Despite their benefits, biodegradable polyesters face challenges like higher production costs compared to conventional plastics, limited mechanical and thermal properties, and the need for specific conditions to biodegrade effectively.


Natural Alternatives to Polyester



lyocell tencel fabric eucalyptus

Some natural bio-degradable fibres like lyocell (made from wood pulp), whilst distinct to polyester share some of the same properties and can be a viable alternative for many use cases.


Versatility: Both lyocell and polyester can be blended with other fibres, such as cotton and wool, to enhance fabric properties like strength, stretchability, and moisture management.


Durability: Both fibres are known for their strength and durability, making them suitable for long-lasting garments and textiles.


Wrinkle Resistance: Both materials resist wrinkling, which makes them popular for clothing that needs to maintain a neat appearance with minimal care.


Moisture Management: Both lyocell and polyester are effective at wicking moisture away from the body, making them suitable for activewear and sportswear.


Softness and Drape: They can be processed to yield a soft feel and good drape, qualities desirable in clothing like dresses and blouses.


Challenges

Lyocell is being more widely adopted for sportswear items and fashion, although it still has its challenges with adoption, primarily due to cost. There are also many instances where natural materials have limitations and synthetic materials would still be preferred for performance reasons, e.g. outerwear and hazard-wear.


Conclusion

With respect to sourcing more sustainable polyester alternatives, It's unlikely that a one size fits all approach will be practical. In reality, different use cases will require different applications. Understanding the nuances of polyester and its sustainable alternatives is key to us making ethical and informed decisions in textiles.


The choices we make today will shape the future of sustainable apparel.



Join the Sustainable Fashion Movement

We encourage industry professionals to embrace sustainable practices. Opting for eco-friendly polyester alternatives can significantly impact our planet and society.

Stay tuned for our next instalment in the Eco Textiles Series, where we'll explore other eco-friendly fibres and production methods.


Comment to suggest topics for future editions!


Editors Note

  1. World Resources Institute: "Emissions from Polyester Production." Website link

  2. International Union for Conservation of Nature: "Microplastic Pollution from Textiles." Website Link

  3. Textile Exchange: Material Market Report Website Link

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