Part 2: What's in your sportswear? Some insights into polyester and our planet

In a previous blog post I asked you to join me for a challenge:

Get all of your sports clothes together, read their material labels, and answer this one question - how many of your sports clothes have at least as one of their ingredients polyester?

Now I’m curious - What was your answer? Was it 30, 50, 80 or even 100%? Did this come as a surprise to you?

Why did I ask you to join me on that challenge? What’s so special about polyester? And why should you care?

Polyester - it impacts our health and planet

Let me give you a quick recap:

First of, polyester is something that most of us wear next to our skin almost every single day - and when we do high-intensity sports, our skin is fully squeezed against it.

And don’t we want to know what our skin touches and absorbs for thousands of hours over our lifetime?

I shared with you the impact polyester has on our health in a previous blog post - so if you haven’t read it yet, I urge you to do it.

Second, polyester is a form of plastic. As we are facing enormous challenges with a worldwide plastic overload that damages our planet, this is another reason why we should take a closer look.

Today I will give you an insight into the second part of the polyester deep-dive and share with you some interesting facts about polyester and our environment.

A multi-talent for sportswear?

As you probably have learned from my previous blog post, polyester is a great all-rounder.

So why is polyester in almost all of the clothes we wear? Any guesses?

Polyester has a couple of good features which is why you will find it in so many of your clothes today: It is light, strong and can be easily dyed and blended with other fibers.

Also, it doesn’t wrinkle much, it is easy to wash and relatively cheap - and has fuelled the growth of fast fashion so dramatically.

And it is the “everyone’s darling” in the sportswear world.

Demand for polyester has been skyrocketing over time: Whereas in 1980, the volume of global polyester production was 5.2 million tons, by 2014 it reached 46.1 million tons.

Polyester is made from oil

Polyester is a synthetic fiber usually derived from crude oil and is the world’s most commonly used fiber. It makes up more than 65 percent of the fibers used in the textile industry, and even overtook cotton usage in 2002.

According to Common Objective, in 2015, more than 330 million barrels of oil were used to make polyester and other synthetic textiles – the equivalent of more than 21,000 Olympic swimming pools.

A burden to our planet

Polyester production has a lower environmental impact than the production of some natural fibres in terms of water usage and wastewater, says Defra (2010).

So what’s the issue then?

Well, the energy required to produce polyester and the greenhouse gas emitted make it a high impact process. In 2015, polyester produced for clothing emitted 282 billion kg of CO 2 – nearly three times more than for cotton.

Another issue is pollution. There are factories without proper wastewater treatment systems which can release potentially dangerous substances including cobalt, manganese sodium bromide and titanium dioxide into the environment during polyester production.

“Without significant action, there may be more plastic than fish in the ocean, by weight, by 2050.”

A source of microplastics

You might have read this phrase from EllenMac Arthur Foundation before: “Without significant action, there may be more plastic than fish in the ocean, by weight, by 2050.”

Seriously, do we want to let that happen?

Sadly, polyester is a contributor to that number.

As an oil-based plastic, polyester does not biodegrade like natural fibres. Instead, it stays in landfill for several decades at least – and potentially for hundreds of years.

Have you ever wondered what happens to your polyester clothes when you wash them?

Researchers of the University of Plymouth studied exactly that and made some interesting findings: Washing these clothes released thousands of microplastics into the environment.

To be specific, they found that laundering an average washing load of 6kg could release an estimated 137,951 fibres from polyester-cotton blend fabric, 496,030 fibres from polyester and 728,789 from acrylic.

Ok...but why does that matter?

Well, when these fibers are shed they can enter our waterways and oceans as microplastic fibres, as studies have shown.

Fish and other aquatic creatures then ingest the microplastics, which accumulate toxins up the food chain. Ultimately, these can enter our human food chains and the wider environment.

What makes this even more hazardous is that microplastics have the potential to absorb toxins from the surrounding environment - so not only will living beings ingest the microplastics upon exposure, but they will also be exposed to additional harmful pollutants that are docked to the microplastics.

I invite you to watch the movie “A Plastic Ocean” which illustrates the effects of plastics like polyester has on our planet.

But wait - can recycled polyester be the solution?

Today, most polyester used in clothing currently is virgin polyester. Very few clothes– less than 1 percent of collected textiles – are recycled back into clothing.

So can recycling all polyester be the solution then?

The majority of recycled polyester comes from recycled plastic – rPET – especially from plastic bottles. This seems a more environmentally sustainable solution to virgin polyester – it uses between 30 and 50 percent less energy, reduces the need for primary extraction of crude oil and cuts the amount disposed in landfill.

So what’s the flip side?

Each time plastic is reheated for recycling it degrades, so it cannot be recycled indefinitely (but hopefully major innovations might make it possible in the future).

Recycling also requires high temperatures which can release carcinogenic compounds into the atmosphere.

Lots of polyester is blended with other fibres making it much harder to recycle. Today it is not possible to commercially separate e.g. polyester and cotton for recycling, although there are some innovative developments in this area.

Most of these poly-cotton blends don’t get recycled. Instead, they are being landfilled, or ‘downcycled’ for use as insulation and furniture stuffing.

And lastly, recycled polyester is still polyester and still releases microplastics into our aquatic systems, and ultimately back to us.

So it doesn’t matter if clothes are from virgin or recycled polyester, they both contribute to microplastics pollution.

So what's the solution then?

This might have been a tough read for you, and might leave you wondering: What on Earth should I wear then? It just seems all so hopeless.

Head up, my friend, here are some tips that help you to make better choices. They might seem obvious, but I challenge you to actually implement one or two of them to start with:

  • Check the material labels of your clothes. Try to avoid polyester and their “plastic-friends” like acrylic and polyamide whenever you can. Choose more low-impact fabrics such as Tencel or hemp instead. If you still want to buy clothes that contain polyester, choose recycled one instead.
  • Buy less, but better quality.
  • Buy second-hand.
  • Wash your clothes less, and air-dry more.
  • Repair instead of throwing away.

What are your experiences with finding and using more sustainable alternatives to polyester? Please share in the comments below.

Rest assured that Tripulse will not choose polyester as the material of choice, but will make sure to offer you much more environmentally-friendly alternatives. So that your workouts to come can be truly beneficial for you and our planet. Together we can work towards a world with less plastic.

To learn more about the exciting world of sustainable textiles, sports and sustainability, and to be the first to know when we´ll launch our sportswear, just leave your email address and sign up for our Tripulse news below.

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