Polyester is a thermoplastic produced in fibers that is one of the most used materials in the production of clothes, along with cotton. In this time of environmental concerns, the public is bombarded with messages about using public transport, shopping for locally sourced foods and recycling waste, but the actual production of clothing fibers has a huge environmental impact, as well. To understand the impact of polyester, look at how the ecosystem is affected at every stage of the product's lifespan.
Polyester is a petrochemical-derived polymer, meaning its base product is crude oil. The environmental impact of crude oil is well established. The drilling of oil is not only polluting in itself, but also increasingly expensive, dangerous and damaging to ecosystems both on land and at sea. Looking beyond this, petrochemicals are nonrenewable, so as oil becomes ever more scarce the price of producing polyester also will increase.
The actual production of polyester into material also is damaging to the environment. Not only is the base product carbon-based, but the factory uses large amounts of water in production. This water is taken from local sources, causing rivers to dry up, damaging the ecosystem for local plants and animals. In terms of emissions, polyester production is not overly polluting. It is energy-intensive, but the chemicals used are on a closed-loop and used over and over without needing to be disposed of.
Biodegrading refers to the decomposition of a material when it is thrown away. Organic materials will turn to compost, helping plants to grow, but manmade materials such as polyester will not do anything. To overcome this environmental problem with this popular clothing material, manufacturers and consumers are being encouraged to recycle unwanted polyester clothing.
Recycling polyester helps on two levels. At the factory, the polyester is reused meaning less petrochemicals are required to produce new fibers. This saves on oil drilling, water consumption and energy use, all benefiting the environment. Recycled clothes also are sent aboard to poor countries in Asia, Africa and South America. This not only helps the local population though charity, but also means less polyester has to be produced by the factory to cover gaps in the market.
Some polyester factories are experimenting with alternative methods for the production of polyester using other recycled polymers. Plastic bottles, made form polyethylene terephthalate, are being reused, not as bottles, but to manufacture polyester. Like the basic recycling of clothes, this reduces the environmental strain from the factory.