Material Series IV: Polyester and friends
I don’t know about you but generally, I don’t particularly like polyester & synthetic clothing. I start to sweat excessively, it sticks to your body when it's warm and generally I don’t like the touch and feel of them. Having said that, I am also a yogi, so I definitely do own some polyester items for sports and a few casual items as well. It is difficult nowadays to go completely polyester or synthetics free.
For this article, I wanted to investigate a bit more what these materials mean for fashion and for our planet. This article could become very longwinded and technical, which is not something we want to do. So I'm keeping it short and sweet.
Polyester is a petroleum-derived material which is used for many different applications ranging from clothing, bed sheets, blankets, upholstered furniture to computer mouse mats. Industrial polyester fibres, yarns and ropes are used in car tire reinforcements, fabrics for conveyor belts, safety belts, coated fabrics and plastic reinforcements with high-energy absorption. Polyester fibre is also used as cushioning and insulating material in pillows, comforters and upholstery padding.
Other examples of synthetic fabrics are acrylic, lycra, spandex, nylon, and any other textiles made from long-chain man-made polymers.
Polyester textiles have a lot of advantages: when mixed with natural material such as cotton (polycotton) it is strong, wrinkle and tear-resistant, easy-to-clean and reduces shrinking.
Synthetic fibers using polyester have high water, wind and environmental resistance compared to plant-derived fibers. Sounds great, right?
Well, not entirely, there is a dirty little secret related to polyester and it synthetic friends. You might have heard of it.
Besides the fact that it is a petroleum-based material which makes it non-biodegradable, it also sheds. Sheds, you say? Yes sheds… It sheds microfibers. What are microfibers? Microfibers are tiny pieces of thread that come off of synthetic clothing when washed, often not visible for the naked eye.
A study from the University of Plymouth has shown that with every load of washing (+-6kg), the release of microfibers could add up to 137,951 fibres from polyester-cotton blend fabric, 496,030 fibres from polyester and 728,789 from acrylic.
One of the worst offenders is fleece: a single polyester fleece jacket could shed as many as 1,900 of these tiny fibres each time it is washed. This is about 1,7 grams per wash.
All garments release microfibers however because the synthetics ones are not natural fibers, they do not biodegrade; whereas silk, cotton or wool do. A small note on this is that the dyes and any potential chemical treatments the natural fabrics have had, also release chemicals back into our environment. The synthetic microscopic fibers pollute our drinking water, rivers, oceans, surface water and poisons wild life. We end up eating them as well through the fish and seafood we eat, jeopardizing our health. you see, fish can mistakenly see these microfibers for food and eat them, they get eaten by bigger fish and so on which then end up on our plates and in our bodies. And currently nobody is able to predict what the long-term effect will be on our bodies.
Recent studies have shown that microplastics have also been found in our bottled water, tap water and salt.
The garments from which they are shed are often treated with waterproofing agents, stain- or fire-resistant chemicals, or synthetic dyes that could be harmful and toxic to organisms that ingest them.
All of these microfibers are adding to the plastic pollution we are facing today.
This is pretty bad news, so what how can we reduce and ideally eliminate this?
How about recycled polyester?
Currently, most of the recycled polyester comes from PET bottles that are being recycled into a resin and then spun into a thread that can be used for your yoga pants, your running or climbing gear, fleeces, etc.
So yes, we are kind of resolving the plastic bottle waste mountain by making clothes out of them. However, having said that, there are mixed messages on if these recycled polyester garments shed more or less. No clear results have been reported on this yet, as far as I could find.
Currently Europe does not have the facilities to recycle your yoga pants or running gear! generally the polyester recycling is done in China, however, these days, China is not very keen on taking in any foreign "waste". So we better get to work and get facilities up and running on this side of the planet.
The first solution is pretty obvious: reduce or eliminate the number of synthetics you buy! I don’t know about you, but I generally prefer natural fabrics anyway. And as we learned earlier, blends show better results when it comes to release microfibers! So give preference to natural materials or blends.
Next is: wash your synthetic items less. We generally wash our clothes too often anyways, which is creating problems related to water use and pollution due to all the chemical laundry products we use. And really, how often do you need to wash a fleece anyway!
Also, the same study from Plymouth University showed that front-loading washing machines release fewer microfibers compared to top-loading machines. Also washing at lower temperature improves the results.
I even read somewhere that you can put your clothes in the freezer to get rid of smells, maybe worth a try :-)
Another solution is, of course, making sure these microfibers don’t end up in our wastewater. This could be done by additional filters in our washing machines, however, to date I have not found any, although I do believe the industry needs to work at it and help come up with a solution.
Another solution I came across is the CORA ball, I have not tested it yet, but looking into getting one! The team behind CORA ball investigated how they could best capture the microfiber releases in your washing machine and came up with below design, inspired by nature. The ball captures the microfibers, that you can discard of after every wash in the bin. It might not catch 100%, but every little bit helps, right?!
Any of you have any experience with it, would love to hear about it!
And last but definitely not least, we ask the textiles and fashion industry to help reduce and eliminate this problem by designing better and using alternative materials.