Polyester vs Recycled Polyester: Is the Latter Eco-Friendly?

Giada Nizzoli

Polyester vs Recycled Polyester: Is the Latter Eco-Friendly?

You’ve probably heard that synthetic fabrics aren’t good news for the environment, but what if they’re made using existing materials?

To fully understand the virgin polyester vs recycled polyester debate, let’s look at them separately first. 

Virgin polyester: popular and cheap… but with a high environmental cost

This material dominates the clothing industry and fast fashion in particular, with over 52 million tonnes of polyester garments being produced every year. 

What is virgin polyester exactly?

Virgin polyester is a synthetic fibre created through a chemical reaction involving petroleum, and it’s the most common form of PET (polyethylene terephthalate). 

So, basically, polyester is… plastic that you can wear!

Why is polyester clothing so popular?

  • Strong
  • Wrinkle-resistant
  • Elastic
  • Absorbs less moisture than most fabrics 
  • Ideal for sports clothing
  • Cheaper than most natural fibres
  • No cultivating land nor pesticides required

Environmental problems with virgin polyester

Microplastic in the ocean

Photo credit: NASA

Unfortunately, despite these practical benefits, polyester is also one of the worst fabrics for the planet:

  • It comes from petroleum, a non-renewable resource
  • Its production relies on a carbon-heavy process that’s responsible for 40% of fashion’s emissions
  • Polyester is not biodegradable: it can take 200 years to decompose in landfills!
  • It’s hard and usually impossible to recycle, especially if blended with other materials (like poly/cotton clothes)
  • Whenever washed, polyester clothing releases microplastics that can end up in the ocean

A new alternative: recycled polyester

First produced in 1993 by Patagonia and Polartec, recycled polyester has become more popular over the past few years since the problems behind virgin polyester have been exposed. 

Is it actually eco-friendly, though, or is it greenwashing?

What is recycled polyester material?

Also called rPET since it uses PET as raw material, recycled polyester is a fibre made using post-consumer plastic waste, and especially bottles or fishnets retrieved from the ocean.

Plastic bottles being picked up to make recycled polyester clothing

Is recycled polyester better?

Yes, recycled polyester is much better than virgin polyester from an environmental point of view!

While it has its same strength and elasticity, it brings several sustainable benefits because it bypasses its petroleum-based production process. 

To put the virgin polyester vs recycled polyester debate into perspective, the latter reduces:

  • energy use by 50%
  • CO2 emissions by 75%
  • water consumption by 90%
  • plastic waste: 1 kg of recycled polyester saves 60 plastic bottles!

The problems with recycled polyester

Let’s be realistic, though: when comparing virgin polyester vs recycled polyester, we’re still talking about the same material.

rPET poses the same challenges and environmental problems when it comes to:

  • recycling
  • microplastics 
  • the fact that it’s not biodegradable

So, what is the difference between virgin polyester and recycled polyester?

Model wearing rPET or recycled polyester vs polyester

The difference between virgin polyester and recycled polyester is that the former is created from scratch using fossil fuels, whereas the latter relies on post-consumer plastic. 

While it maintains some of the problems of virgin polyester, recycled options help reduce waste and energy consumption, which makes them a better option for the environment.

Polyester vs recycled polyester clothing: how you can wear it more sustainably

Woman wearing recycled polyester clothing

Now that you understand the virgin polyester vs recycled polyester debate, discover even more resourceful brands getting creative with the latter: shop recycled polyester clothing on Project Cece.

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