Recycled polyester: it's a dilemma and not one with a clear answer. There are about as many questions as there are answers so it is so valuable to share knowledge and information. By learning more we can make a more informed decision. And we can understand one another better too, recognising the value and usefulness of differing opinions.
So what did we learn about recycled polyester?
Our online debate opened some windows onto the issue that I hadn't considered before. Doesn't make it simpler, but it does help crystallise the issues.
We are all fans of recycling; it seems clear that it is going to continue to be a big part of efforts to clean up the planet and make better use of the resources we have available to us. Even here though, we need to look into the process. Recycling plastics has environmental costs in itself both in terms of water usage and in the harmful chemicals that are released during melting and processing of the plastic.
It's inescapable, with any plastic based material, there are going to be toxins involved and at the end of its life, it will end up in landfill or an incinerator. And that's basically a messy business. But this perhaps provides all the more reason to reuse plastics as much as possible before the inevitable disposal issues come up.
Given that this durable and robust material has been made, how best can we reuse it to try to hold off the problems of disposal? One way is through making recycled polyester clothing. Another is by using it for other things like furniture stuffing or even making bricks to build homes. And if there is a drive to reuse plastic, scientists will continue to invest time and money into working out how best to do this. That even goes so far as to look at using waste CO2 emissions to make more materials.
By investing in recycling plastics there is more hope that some of the disadvantages of the process might be overcome and we will build our knowledge of things that right now don't seem possible. That said, currently in the UK there are no facilities for recycling clothes made from recycled polyester and the technology for doing this is not there just yet.
At the moment a plastic bottle can be recycled once, possibly twice and at most three times, and recycled polyester clothing can't be recycled at all. For recycling polyester clothing to be an option, there needs to be a lot more investment in this area. For now, it's a closed cycle and that is disappointing.
This is true for the mountains of clothes that fill charity shops and landfill. There is a resource there but so far we haven't really tapped into it. A really significant point is that the drive for these types of innovation comes from customers. When consumers show they want these developments and are willing to some extent to pay for them, then businesses will start to take notice and governments will be more likely to invest. This is really the tip of the iceberg though. In fact here's the key: We need to change our habits.
What we can do
As consumers we are so used to buying more than we need and advertising plays on our insecurities to reinforce a sense that maybe we do need this item that in fact we really don't. If we can overcome this and get back to buying a few good quality pieces that last for years, there would be a much smaller problem to solve.
It's not only our shopping habits. I didn't realise until the online debate that car tyres are in fact the biggest source of microfibres. Examining our habits can enable us to make broader changes that can have an even bigger impact on our world.
At the same time, that can feel so big that it's easy to be overwhelmed. One step at a time. A little more information here and there and together we can make changes that do make a difference. @growingneeds used a great phrase in the debate: “every step in the right direction will lead to collective leaps”. That is absolutely what we are hoping for.
Part of making changes is finding opportunities to become more informed and clothing companies can be part of that too. One great idea is making sure that advice is provided with the garment for how best to care for it, and what the issues are.
Recycled polyester is particularly well suited to outerwear, like our Stevie Fleece
, because it is not as breathable or comfortable close to the skin and can exacerbate skin conditions. As outerwear it is a good insulator and can be water and weather proof.
When washed, garments made of recycled polyester release microfibres into the water system. By using a guppyfriend those microfibres can be caught but there is then a question of what to do with them after that. Outerwear needs to be washed less often than garments worn close to the skin and if information is provided about why not to wash too often and alternatives (like hanging a garment outside to freshen it up) with the clothes when you buy them, that will help customers become more informed and more aware.
And the results of the poll? We asked: Recycled Polyester – yay or nay? 89% said yes, 11% said no. And everyone had good reasons. From a preference for natural fibres to concerns about pollution and questions about what the best solutions look like, everyone had interesting and useful points to make.
Below I've included some of the links that contributors mentioned that make for fascinating further reading. And finally, special thanks to all those who took part in the debate; it would be a long list to mention you all but we really enjoyed and appreciated what you had to share.