The Poly Problem w/ Anne Oudard

We see recycled polyester advertised all over the place as a sustainable holy grail. But, is it really all it’s cracked up to be? I recently came across a post by Anne Oudard on LinkedIn that sparked a very interesting conversation about the misconceptions of recycled polyester. Anne Oudard is a denim consultant specializing in sustainable design and development whom I share a lot of the same values with, especially our opinion on plastics, so I am so happy to be writing this collaborative piece with Anne on our poly problem!!

Half of the clothes on our planet are made from polyester and so are most of the jeans.

The success of this synthetic fibre comes from its great resistance and cheap price. But polyester also has a considerable downside: it is the most polluting fibre ever.

Polyester is made from fossil fuel and its production emits more greenhouse gases than any others. It is also the main source of microplastic pollution, accounting for 35% of the global total! An average of 700,000 fibers is released in a single load of laundry left to enter our water systems and eventually us. And if you don’t care about plastic affecting the wildlife and our planet, would you care if it was directly harming you? 

WWF shows that humans are consuming 2000 tiny pieces of plastic every week. That’s approximately 21 grams a month, and just over 250 grams a year. To put that into perspective, it’s like we’re eating a credit card a week. YIKES! And with half a million tons of microfibers ending up in oceans every year, we better make sure these are not plastic.

Tommy Kane plastic in the ocean

Photo by: Tommy Kane

A recent study, led by two Ph.D. students from the University of Arizona, examined 47 samples from deceased people’s organs, including lungs, livers, spleens, and kidneys, taken from a tissue bank that typically studies neurodegenerative diseases and found that every organ sample contained traces of plastic. Now we won’t play WebMD here, but surely you can imagine this is not healthy!

As more and more brands are trying to reduce their environmental impact, polyester has become the #1 fibre to avoid and the most popular alternative is now recycled polyester.

Recycled polyester emits 79% less greenhouse gases, sheds considerably fewer microfibres and it’s made from the recycled product! But what is it exactly?

One might believe « recycled polyester » is made from recycled polyester fabric but sorry to burst your bubble - it is not. In fact, it is made from recycled PET, commonly known as… plastic bottles! To make recycled polyester, plastic bottles are shredded into flakes, converted into pellets, melted and spun into yarn. But, what’s wrong with diverting plastic bottles from landfills and turning them into fabric?

c/o Mind Body Green

In order to create recycled polyester, PET material is taken out of a potentially circular economy and dragged into a linear, product-to-waste, one. Bottle-to-bottle recycling can work efficiently in a closed loop where new bottles can be made from old ones. But once a bottle is turned into polyester yarn and blended with other fibers, like cotton, it cannot be recycled anymore. There are amazing technologies extracting polyester to recycle it, but these have yet to be scaled, meaning garments containing polyester are most likely to end their life in the incinerator or landfill. 

Collected plastic bottles are commonly recycled into polyester yarn, but only 7% of them are turned back into bottles. In some countries, like India, recycled content in food packaging isn’t allowed, so recycled polyester seems to be the best option to turn waste into resources. But many others don’t impose such restrictions. In fact, it’s quite the opposite!

The European Commission has adopted new rules for reducing single-use plastic, targeting 25% of recycled content in plastic bottles by 2025 and 30% by 2030. Companies are also aiming toward similar goals. Major plastic producer Pepsico wants to reduce its virgin plastic consumption by 35% in 2025 . It seems like the demand for recycled plastic in packaging will keep rising. 

Some might even argue that plastic waste is so immense that it could feed both the packaging and clothing industry together. But the truth is, there is a very limited supply of recycled PET. Even if we massively improved our global plastic collection, supplies can’t meet the demand for all markets.

Ultimately, we will always need more plastic bottles to make more recycled polyester.

The urge of cutting down our reliance on fossil fuel and plastics has led the denim industry to look for new alternatives like hemp, Tencel, and linen. But, after removing the obvious cotton-poly denim from the equation, two more challenges are left to achieve 100% plastic-free jeans: stretch yarn and sewing threads. 

Stretch yarns are originally made from elastane, a synthetic fibre made of polymers from petroleum products with the same environmental issues as polyester. The first denim supplier that has come up with a 100% plant-based alternative is the Italian mill Candiani. The story says that Alberto Candiani got the idea while eating Italian salami twined in natural rubber netting. This culinary epiphany led to the creation of a patented yarn named Coreva®, made from natural rubber, extracted from sustainably managed forests. 

With this brand new plant-based stretch on the market, the last bit of plastic left is hiding in the sewing threads. Sewing thread components tend to be neglected when calculating the fibre composition of a garment, yet an estimated 180m is needed for making a pair of jeans! …and they are composed of polyester or cotton-poly blends. The reason 100% cotton threads aren’t so popular is that they tend to become fluffy and weak during the washing process. Recently, a cellulosic alternative has been brought on the market by Portuguese supplier Crafil. They created a 100% Tencel® sewing thread that proves to be very resistant while made from wood pulp.

The sustainable fashion leader Stella McCartney and visionary denim brands Triarchy, Boyish, and Kings of Indigo are the first to release plant-based stretch jeans proving that the industry can successfully break free from plastic!

Anne and I hope you learned a little more about why we need to reduce or reliance on polyester and are inspired to create 100% plastic-free jeans. Thank you Anne for sharing your expertise and until next time friends, STAY DILIGENT!

 

 


 

1 comment

  • Such a great topic to discuss and, a lot to understand and digest.

    I do have a couple of questions from my humble and limited material engineering background and experience in polymers years(many years ago) back on my career. Why is it that PET cant be recycled? PET as PETE are thermoplastics , they aren’t thermoshets materials where the cross-links of polimerazation of these makes its recycled process impossible due that once exposed to heat they will decompose) “Thermo= has to do how the plastic responds to heat”. Thermoplastics and especial PET has the ability to keep up to 40% its original energy (Please refer to transition or glass temperature transition for thermoplastics and multiples studies of PET-PETE-HDPE).
    PET can exist either in a crystalline (higher glass transition temperature) or amorphous state (amorphous state = transparent in nature = plastic bottles = transparent, high chemical resistance, lightweight, less energy to be produced). So it isn’t that PET cant be recycled over and over, it depends on how PET has been processed to determine how it can be recycled (its cross-link polymerisation allow existing PET material to be melted and remoulded into different products).

    whats more interesting and innovative it would be the idea to be able to blend this with other materials that can have the ability biodegrade the PET(even though and we fully now it comes from “oil” – please refer to early studies of enzymatic hydrolisis. or dont know even to be used as flamed retardant once modified.

    Scientifc studies shows that the MAJOR CAUSE FOR ACCIDENTAL INGESTION OF MICROPLASTICS BY ANIMALS, BIRDS AND FISH HAVE BEEN REPORTED TO BE THEIR SMELL AS FOOD RATHER THAN SIZE OR SHAPE.
    (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/22/microplastics-found-in-human-stools-for-the-first-time)

    Microbial enzymes belonging to arylesterase have been reported to degrade PBAT (Wallace et al. 2017). Polyesterase acting on aromatic polyesters (primarily PET) was first reported for Thermobifida fusca by a German research group (Müller et al. 2005)

    I agree fully – PET and SPECIALLY THERMOSETS (those used in computer parts, electrical insulation, ….) cant be produced as single-use products. I particularly haven’t conducted QA testing to analyse how much material can go through our waterways once we wash our clothing in our laundry – which was a good topic to discuss about: filter and micro-catchers that prevents all this shredded material to enter our water-systems "what to do with the collected material would be another great question? – or is it a better system to prevent not only polyester but all textile-like materials entering our waterways?. Would you have any knowledge of any ISO or ASTM test methods in particular testing conducted in textiles to determine its capacity to shred once expose to abrasion-heat such as a laundry process?.

    This sort of topics are really a passion to discuss and yet there is a lot to do for our fave of all “Denim” and, multi-disciplanary and different skills can definitively help us decipher best ways moving forward as well as “what to do with the actual waste we have to deal with” – so sorry can write for hours about such a passionate and interesting topics. -

    Please such statement is not to be published as it doesnot have factual evidence of how to measure the effect of any shredding effect caused in clothing-fibres to the laundry process. only refers to previous studies on PET-bio-degradation research studies and PET

    Kind Regards
    Juan V.

    Juan Velez

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