Is 100% Polyester recyclable? 

Polyester is the textile form of plastic Polyethylene terephthalate (PET). It is a very common synthetic fiber and approximately 50% of the world’s garments are made with polyester. With the world’s landfills piling up with thrown-out garments, and the CO2  levels of the atmosphere rising, we are forced to turn our attention to the rampant fast fashion that’s filling up our landfills.

Recycling polyester has become not just an environmental issue, but also an economical issue. Creating an efficient recycling system for this fabric will save an incredible amount of raw materials and cut costs of raw materials and energy for manufacturers.

In this article, I will go over the process of polyester recycling, how establishing an efficient system of recycling can help us economically, and cut carbon emissions, and I will explain how the environment suffers from overusing polyester. 

Lastly, I will go over the limitations of polyester recycling and why to establish a truly circular economy we need to ultimately cycle out polyester for natural or biodegradable fibers. 

Can we recycle 100% polyester? 

Yes, 100% polyester is recyclable. 100% polyester is the easiest to recycle compared to composite fabrics which are mixed with natural fabrics like cotton and hemp. 

In recent years, with the rise in demand for stretchy comfortable wear like sweatpants, sneakers, and jumpers, the use of polyester in clothing has also increased. Most of these fabrics are composites but many are 100% polyester as well. These are quite easily recycled if a proper channel exists by which they can reach the recycling centers.

Some clothing companies like Patagonia, which make outdoor wear made of polyester, accept old polyester clothing from any brand the consumer can drop off for recycling. 

Giants in the clothing industry like Gap and Ikea have also pledged to switch to recycled polyester by 2030. 

As of now, most cities do not accept clothing items in their general recycling system. Some cities in Europe do have specific drop-off points where you can drop your polyester clothes for recycling. 

This information is generally online. Do ensure you check out your local recycling policy for polyester before you throw it out.

The next question is, why is so little polyester clothing recycled? This is mainly due to inefficient collection, sorting, and distribution methods. Most cities do not have a proper channel by which these items can reach a recycling center, which makes it very difficult to recycle. 

How do we recycle polyester? 

100% polyester is recycled much like most plastics. There are mechanical, chemical, physical, or combination methods to recycle polyester. Mechanical means are the most cost-effective, consequently most widely used.

Chemical techniques to turn polyester back to its raw materials do exist, but these are not cost-effective at all, which limits their use in most countries. 

In the mechanical recycling process, the fabric is first sorted by color, then shredded. The shredded fabric is then melted and turned into pellets. These pellets can be either used to make new clothing or several PET items. To make clothes these pellets are then melted again and spun into yarn.

It is important to know how much of the polyester is made from virgin PET and how much is made from recycled PET or rPET. 

What is rPET and is it the answer? 

A significant amount of polyester is spun from rPET originating primarily from drinking bottles. Which is of course a move in the right direction. According to a 2017 study by the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment, approximately 59% less energy is required to make polyester out of rPET compared to virgin PET. Around 32% less CO2 is released by using rPET as well. 

Using rPET does not cause any significant drop in fiber quality of polyester. However, this is not a feasible or sustainable approach by itself. This process demands the production of new bottles and other PET items to continue making polyester.

And the idea of using ocean plastic to manufacture clothing is a myth. In reality, the salt in the ocean combined with sunlight damages the plastic to the point where it becomes extremely expensive to recycle. Most companies who boast of using ocean plastic in their packaging only use a fraction of ocean plastic, the rest is conventionally recycled plastic from landfills.

This is why recycling used polyester clothing back into fabric is a much better alternative. This allows polyester to truly enter a circular economy where the waste is turned back into a usable product. This minimizes waste and limits the extraction of more and more fossil fuels to continue to make PET feed the system. 

Currently, recycling polyester back into fabric is the best, and the most sustainable option we have. This is currently possible for 100% polyester material and certain composite fabrics. Fabric that is a mix of cotton and polyester can currently be recycled for the polyester.

Fabric that are composites of polyester and other fibers like hemp is not. Hopefully, soon we’ll have the technology to extract and recycle polyester from these materials as well. 

Is recycled polyester the future? 

For now, it is the best available option. It is possible to enter a circular economy by recycling polyester. 

There are undeniable benefits of recycled polyester. Currently, each year about 85% of our clothes end up in landfills, a major portion of which is polyester. This polyester is a renewable resource with incredible potential. Sadly due to bad waste management and lack of infrastructure, it ends up wasting away in landfills.

One of the reasons why polyester is not going to be replaced by any natural or biodegradable fiber anytime soon is because of its extreme versatility. It can be mixed and meshed with different fibers to serve a multitude of purposes which no other fiber alone serves. 

It is more durable and more stretchable than most natural fabrics. This is why finding a way to enter polyester into a closed-recycling-loop will benefit us all.

There are doubts about the efficacy of polyester recycling by certain scholars.

For example, when reporting the energy consumed while making products from rPET, the energy consumed by the plastic in its previous life cycle is not considered. There are limitations to Polyester recycling as well.

What are the limitations of polyester recycling? 

Currently, polyester cannot be infinitely recycled. Each recycling event lessens the quality of the plastic. Eventually, it becomes unusable and ends up in landfills. 

The best solution to this problem is to streamline a chemical recycling approach that converts polyester back into its raw materials. This will over time reduce the extraction of fossil fuels and reduce the carbon footprint of the polyester industry. 

Recycling has been treated as a miracle solution to our waste problem. It most certainly is an excellent solution to reduce waste. But it has its limitations. Many people are under the impression that as long as they can recycle, they can continue to buy more clothes. This is untrue and unfeasible.

Buying more clothes and then tossing them in the recycle bin does not solve the problem. Each clothing item, recycled or not, has been produced by using a significant amount of energy and results in carbon emission. 

Until a closed-loop-recycling system is established for polystyrene, it is wise to reduce the number of clothes you buy on a shopping binge.

For a sustainable future, we must reduce, repurpose, and recycle clothes. 

Conclusion: 

Recycling polyester has become not just an environmental issue, but also an economical issue. Creating an efficient recycling system for this fabric will save an incredible amount of raw materials and cut costs of raw materials and energy for manufacturers.

In this article, I went over the process of polyester recycling, how establishing an efficient system of recycling can help us economically, and cut carbon emissions, and I will explain how the environment suffers from overusing polyester. 

Lastly, I went over the limitations of polyester recycling and why to establish a truly circular economy we need to ultimately cycle out polyester for natural or biodegradable fibers. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): Is 100% polyester recyclable? 

Can you recycle 100% polyester?

Yes, it can be recycled. Fabric that is a mix of polyester and other natural fibers are much harder to recycle, however.  There are newer techniques that are being developed that show promise to recycle composite fabrics.

Is polyester bad for the environment? 

Yes, for the most part, it is. It is made from petrochemicals and does not decay. Which causes it to accumulate in landfills. Moreover, it releases microplastics into the water each time it is washed. 

How do you recycle polyester? 

Like most other plastics. It is shredded and then melted to make pellets. These pellets are then melted and passed through an extruder and a variety of other machines which ultimately turns it into yarn. 

Is polyester biodegradable? 

The short answer is, no. It is based on petrochemicals and this product does not decay and remains in landfills for 100s of years. 

Why is recycled polyester better?

It is better for the environment. More recycling means less trash in the landfills or the waterways. Besides that, using recycled polyester can reduce the energy expenditure of production by more than 50 percent, and carbon emission by 32 percent.

Can we recycle polyester repeatedly? 

No, the quality of the fabric deteriorates after a few repeated recycling events. This is why we need to find better alternatives to mechanical recycling and find better, more environmentally friendly fibers.

References: 

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  3. How sustainable is recycled polyester?. (2022). Retrieved 8 January 2022, from https://fashionunited.uk/news/fashion/how-sustainable-is-recycled-polyester/2018111540000
  4. Is Polyester Recyclable?. (2022). Retrieved 8 January 2022, from https://www.beanbagsrus.com.au/blog/is-polyester-recyclable/
  5. Is recycled polyester fabric RECYCLABLE?. (2022). Retrieved 8 January 2022, from https://oecotextiles.blog/2009/11/11/is-recycled-polyester-fabric-recyclable/
  1. Recycle Polyester: Way to Safe Environment and Energy. (2022). Retrieved 8 January 2022, from https://www.textiletoday.com.bd/recycle-polyester-way-to-safe-environment-and-energy/
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