Is 100% polyester biodegradable? (5 steps of polyester making) 

In this article, the biodegradability of polyester has been discussed. Other covered topics are: 

  • What is polyester?
  • How is polyester made?
  • What are the applications of polyester?
  • What is biodegradability?
  • Is there any difference between biodegradable and eco-friendly?
  • Is 100% polyester biodegradable?
  • FAQs

Is 100% polyester biodegradable?

Most of the 100% polyester is not biodegradable because it is made from petroleum products. However, one type of polyester is made from plants and is biodegradable. This biodegradable polyester is not of great utilitarian value and hence is less preferred. 

The production and use of polyester fabric are linked to various negative impacts on the environment and health in general including the use and discharge of harmful chemicals and dyes 

What is polyester fabric?

In simple words, polyester is a synthetic fabric that is derived from fossil fuels like crude oil or petroleum. 

Regarding fabrics, there are two possibilities. Fabrics can either be derived from nature like cotton. Fabrics can also be synthesised from petroleum products. Each has its own pros and cons. 

If we speak about polyester fabric, it is a synthetic fabric that is synthesised from petroleum. As you may have guessed, since the polyester fabric is not naturally derived, it may remain in the environment for a very long time. 

However, not all forms of polyester fabric are like this. Some types of polyester fabrics are made from plant-based materials and hence can be regarded as degradable. 

The applications of polyester fabric largely adhere to the apparel industry. Polyester fabric may be used in clothes like pants, shirts, shorts et cetera. 

In many cases, polyester fabric is often blended with other fabrics like cotton or wool to give better utility. 

For example, when polyester is blended with cotton fabric, then it results in increased durability, better shrinkage and wrinkling profiles. 

Perhaps, the most stood out feature of polyester fabric is its innate ability to withstand harsh conditions. Therefore, polyester is often regarded as a very durable fabric and can be used for a very long period of time. 

That is why it is often blended with other fabrics that do not have that great durability profile. However, this advantage does come at the cost of comfortability, not to mention the environment.

How is polyester fabric made? (5 steps of making) 

This section will cover the various steps that are involved in the production of polyester fabrics. The whole production process can be summed up in five basic steps.

The following are the processes that are employed in the production of polyester fabric. These may be: 

  • Monomer creation 
  • Polymer creation 
  • Extrusion 
  • Spinning 
  • Finishing 

It is known that polymers are created from monomers. Since polyester is a synthetic fibre, it is very natural that the first process of its making is the creation of monomers. 

The monomers that bind to create the polymers of polyester are made from ethylene glycol and dimethyl terephthalate. This binding is done at high temperatures. This high temperature is mostly produced by the employment of non-renewable resources which may have severe detrimental impacts on the environment. 

The next step is the creation of polymers. This, naturally, is obtained by re-reacting with dimethyl terephthalate so that monomers can be converted to polymers. 

The next step is the extrusion. This is where fibres are obtained. The molten polymer is extracted in long strips from the reaction chamber. After some time of cooling, they are broken down into smaller strips. 

Next, we have a spinning process, in which the strips of polyester are spun to create a honey-like substance which is then further extruded to make polyester fibres. 

Lastly, there is the finishing process. This may involve reactions with various chemicals or dyes to obtain the desired characteristics and features of durability and long-lasting. 

Therefore, these are the 5 steps in which polyester is created or synthesised. Since ethylene glycol and dimethyl terephthalate are involved in being obtained from petroleum, it is claimed that polyester is a synthetic fibre and not a natural fibre. 

What are the applications of polyester?

As stated, the most widely accepted application of polyester is to be used as a fabric fibre. It is an alternative to natural fibres like cotton and wool. 

Therefore, it is plausible to assume that everything that is made from cotton or wool can also be made from polyester. However, there are some trade-offs here. 

While the polyester fabric delivers greater durability and can also be cost-efficient it may not be as comfortable as natural fabrics. Regardless, polyester may be used to make apparel items like pants, shirts, trousers, t-shirts, shorts, jackets, suits, and undergarments. 

In many cases, polyester fabric is often blended with other fabrics like cotton or wool to give better utility. 

For example, when polyester is blended with cotton fabric, then it results in increased durability, better shrinkage and wrinkling profiles. 

Perhaps, the most stood out feature of polyester fabric is its innate ability to withstand harsh conditions. Therefore, polyester is often regarded as a very durable fabric and can be used for a very long period of time. 

Another stood-out application of polyester is being used in homeware products. There is a type of polyester fabric which is called microfibre. This has gained popularity in a number of home and kitchen-related materials like pillows, towels, rugs, curtains et cetera. 

Polyester can also be used in industrial products such as bottles, LCD displays, tarps et cetera. This is primarily because the material (PET) that is used to make polyester is also used in a multitude of applications like plastic bottles et cetera. 

What is biodegradability?

Biodegradability is a process through which complex materials are broken down into simple materials by the action of microbes. These microbes can be bacteria, fungi, viruses, protozoa, and even yeast. 

The process of biodegradability can be called a natural dustbin because it is nature’s way to ensure that there is no waste accumulation in the environment. It is coded in the profile of nature that waste has harmful impacts on the environment. 

The harmful impacts of waste are not just restricted to the environment but also the life that resides within it. If there is no biodegradation, there will be waste and deterioration of life and our atmosphere, in short, a global catastrophe. 

Regarding biodegradability, it is generally thought that there are two types of waste. These are biodegradable and non-biodegradable. 

As the name suggests, biodegradable waste can be broken down by the action of microbes. This waste can be plant-based or animal-based wastes. Other examples of this waste will include: 

  • Food waste
  • Animal waste
  • Human waste
  • Paper waste
  • Manure
  • Sewage
  • Hospital waste
  • Dead plants
  • Biopolymers 

On the other hand, non-biodegradable waste is a type of waste which can not be degraded by the action of microbes. Such a type of waste is usually not found in nature. This means that non-biodegradable waste is mostly made or synthesised in the lab. Examples of non-biodegradable waste may be: 

  • Electronic waste
  • Plastics 
  • Polyvinyl Chloride
  • Nuclear waste
  • Hazardous waste
  • Chemical waste
  • Hospital waste 
  • Synthetic resins
  • Synthetic fibres
  • Dyneema 
  • PHA 
  • EVA 

These are some examples of non-biodegradable waste which is associated with a lot of detrimental impacts on health, life and the environment. These aspects will be shed light on in later sections of the article. 

Is there any difference between biodegradable and eco-friendly?

The next big question that has to be dealt with is does biodegradable mean that something is environmentally friendly too?

The answer is no. Being biodegradable does not ensure that the material will cause no harm to life or the environment. This is because biodegradability is just one of many factors that need to be check-listed before making a product eco-friendly. 

Consider the case of biodegradable plastic. Although biodegradable plastic can be degraded by nature in some months to a few years, it still poses threats to the environment because of the way it is used and disposed of. 

If biodegradable plastic is disposed of in an open dump instead of a controlled landfill environment, it may take up to more than 3 years for it to degrade fully. 

During this time, it poses threats to life and the environment as some animals like fish may still consume it leading to choking or dying. 

Another example that will assert that biodegradable does not ensure environmental safety can be that of drywall mud. Drywall mud is a paste that is made from gypsum and asbestos and is used to give strength and structure to drywalls. 

Drywall mud is also biodegradable but the degradation of drywall mud results in the release of toxic gases like sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulphide. 

If the discarding of drywall mud is not done properly and under a controlled environment, it will cause serious problems to humans and the environment. 

Is 100% polyester biodegradable?

After sufficient rummaging, let us move on to our main question. Is 100% polyester biodegradable?

We have seen that for a substance to be biodegradable, it must be made from natural materials instead of non-natural materials.

It is also seen that polyester fabric is made from ethylene glycol and dimethyl terephthalate. These may be obtained from petroleum or from plant sources like sugar cane. Therefore, it can be summed up: 

  • Polyester that is made from ethylene glycol and dimethyl terephthalate obtained from fossil fuels is not biodegradable because it is non-natural 
  • Polyester obtained from plant sources like sugar cane is biodegradable 

However, the most common type of polyester is Ethylene polyester, also called PET, obtained from petroleum products. Since it is the most common, it can be said that most polyester fabrics are non-biodegradable. 

Other than being non-biodegradable, polyester may also harm the environment and humans because of its synthetic nature. It is because: 

  • Use of fossil fuels which is a limited resource
  • Discharge of toxins during the production process
  • Use of harmful chemicals or dyes 
  • Unsustainable ways of production 
  • Release of synthetic microfibers which may cause water pollution and toxicity 

Conclusion 

It is concluded that most 100% polyester is not biodegradable because it is made from petroleum products. However, one type of polyester is made from plants and is biodegradable. However, this biodegradable polyester is not of great utilitarian value and hence is less preferred. 

The production and use of polyester fabric is linked to various negative impacts on the environment and health in general including the use and discharge of harmful chemicals and dyes 

Frequently Asked Questions: Is 100% polyester biodegradable?

What is the most used polyester?

Ethylene polyester (PET) is the most commonly used polyester. 

Where is polyester produced?

Polyester is primarily produced in China, the US, Japan, Indonesia, and Taiwan. 

References

  • Jaffe, M., Easts, A. J., & Feng, X. (2020). Polyester fibers. In Thermal Analysis of Textiles and Fibers (pp. 133-149). Woodhead Publishing.
  • Saleh, H. E. D. M. (Ed.). (2012). Polyester. BoD–Books on Demand.
  • Tokiwa, Y., & Calabia, B. P. (2007). Biodegradability and biodegradation of polyesters. Journal of Polymers and the Environment, 15(4), 259-267.
  • Müller, R. J., Kleeberg, I., & Deckwer, W. D. (2001). Biodegradation of polyesters containing aromatic constituents. Journal of biotechnology, 86(2), 87-95.

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