Is Polyester Bad? Recycled Polyester vs Polyester

This materials summary will discuss the differences between recycled polyester vs. polyester and answer the question, is polyester bad?

As consumer focus switches to more sustainable brands creating products using eco-friendly materials, you may have noticed an increase in brands using recycled polyester (also known as rPET).

We see rPET used for clothing, shoes made from recycled plastics, wallets, etc. But what is recycled polyester, and is recycled polyester an eco-friendly alternative to polyester?

What is Polyester Fabric

Polyester, known by its chemical name polyethylene terephthalate or PET for short, is also used to produce water bottles and other plastics.

Polyester is a man-made synthetic fabric widely used in the clothing industry as it is cheap, versatile, wrinkle-resistant, and lightweight. It is estimated that over 63,000 million tons of polyester fibers are produced every year.

Polyester is now more readily used in the fashion industry, overtaking cotton and making up 52 percent of global fiber production in 2020.

Is Polyester Bad For The Environment?

Polyester has a damaging impact on the environment, both in production and its end of life.

Polyester is derived from non-renewable petroleum through polymerization and polycondensation reactions that require large amounts of energy to produce.

The CDFA reported that in 2015, the global polyester production for clothing emitted 282 billion kg of CO2, almost three times the amount used for cotton fabric production. Carbon Dioxide CO2 emissions contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and the depletion of the ozone layer causing global warming.

Is Polyester Biodegradable?

Polyester is not readily biodegradable, which often pollutes landfills for hundreds of years. When polyester eventually starts to biodegrade, it releases microplastics. These microplastics pollute waterways, soil, and marine environments.

Does washing Polyester release microplastics?

In addition to releasing microplastics in landfills, polyester fabric sheds microfibers (also classed as microplastics) when washed, which can pollute water systems, waterways, and marine ecosystems.

It is proven that washing one polyester shirt can release around 150mg/kg into the wastewater stream.

The Ellen Macarthur Foundation estimates that the washing of textiles causes half a million tonnes of microfiber plastics to be released into oceans every year. To put this into perspective, it is the weight equivalent of around 3 billion polyester tops being dumped into the ocean every year.

Is Polyester Suitable For Sensitive Skin?

In short, no. Polyester and even recycled polyester is a synthetic material that is treated with further chemicals such as fire retardants derived from reactions involving toxic chemicals. Polyester can release chemicals like phthalates to the air and onto the skin.

Polyester is a water-repellent fabric and is notorious for not being as breathable as natural fibers. The reduction in breathability can increase sweat trapped under layers of clothing which can cause skin irritation and discomfort.

We recommend organic and natural fiber such as organic cotton, bamboo, or hemp if you’re looking for a hypoallergenic material suitable for sensitive skin.

What is Recycled Polyester?

Recycled polyester, also known as recycled PET or rPET, is a fabric spun from discarded or waste plastics, mainly recycled plastic bottles and other recycled plastic consumer waste.

It is commonly made by melting down PET plastic to create small chips which are spun into recycled polyester yarn. The yarn is then used for clothing, swimwear, shoes, wallets, bags, and other garments and accessories.

Is Recycled Polyester Bad for the Environment?

Recycled polyester is considered better for the environment than virgin polyester because it uses 30% less energy to produce one shirt in RPET than virgin polyester. However, recycled polyester also has its drawbacks, discussed below.

rPET ProsrPET Cons
✔It uses less energy to produce than virgin polyester.❌rPET also releases microfiber microplastics when washed, which can pollute waterways and marine environments, although this figure may be slightly less than virgin polyester.
✔It prevents water bottles, polyester fabrics, and other consumer waste polluting landfills and oceans.❌rPET may not be hypoallergenic.
✔rPET reduces the use of petroleum fuels.❌rPET won’t readily biodegrade.

Is Recycled Polyester Vegan?

Yes, recycled polyester fabric is vegan as it is an artificial synthetic fiber. However, you should always check that a brand hasn’t used any animal-derived materials and polyester to create a piece of clothing.

Conclusion: Recycled Polyester vs. Polyester

Overall it is clear that polyester has a negative impact on the environment:

  • It requires high amounts of energy to produce
  • It releases microplastics into oceans when washing
  • It doesn’t biodegrade.
  • Requires non-renewable petroleum to produce

Recycled polyester is a better alternative than virgin polyester in clothing production. It reduces our reliance on petroleum, requires less energy to create a garment, and reduces the amount of polyester fabric and plastic water bottles being discarded in oceans or oceans sent to landfills.

However, it is still important to realize that rPET also has environmental drawbacks, including releasing microplastics into oceans. Therefore, it is essential that when washing polyester or rPET textiles, use a washing machine filter or a guppy bag to catch the microplastics and stop them from polluting waterways.

If you enjoyed reading this material summary, learn more about other materials including Organic Cotton, Jute, Tencel, and Cupro.


Bethany Worthington BSc (Hons) (she/her) is the Sustainable Fashion Editor and Co-founder of Ecothes. She has a passion for the environment, and a long love of all things clothing, and combines those two interests with Ecothes. In her free time she loves dancing, hiking in the countryside, and laughing with friends.

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