Recycled Polyester, is it good or bad?

Last summer Nike released a new line of products during the 2014 World Cup. The campaign was called Nike Better World, and it featured shoes, world cup jerseys, and a clothing line made from recycled polyester. On their website, they showed a simplified version of the process of turning plastic bottles into polyester thread, and using that thread to make a jersey. According to their website, it took 9 plastic bottles to make one jersey, and they had successfully diverted 2 billion plastic bottles from landfills. 

Keeping 2 billion plastic bottles out of landfills is a pretty amazing feat. I found the idea exciting, I felt like recycling plastic into clothing could keep so much plastic out of landfills and out of the ocean. It sparked my curiosity, and I wanted to see how it was made and how much recycled polyester is being made each year. I found a video clip from a show on the National Geographic channel that showed how it was done: 

As you can see turning plastic bottles into polyester is quite the process. Plastic bottles are shredded, clear plastic is separated from colored plastic, labels are removed, the plastic shreds are melted and strained through a sieve. The plastic threads are stretched into sheets, then shredded again into fluff, spun into thread, woven into sheets of fabric, and then beaten with wire brushes to make the fabric soft. Worldwide, 7.5 million tons of bottles were collected last year. Of those bottles collected, 440,000 tons were used to produce polyester. That’s an extraordinary amount of plastic, and seems like a great step in the right direction. Or is it?

There are some down sides to recycled polyester. In the process of recycling, the melted down plastic can give off toxic fumes that can contaminate the air. The health of the workers at these factories can be at risk if they are exposed to the fumes and other corrosive materials used in the sanitation and breaking down of these plastic bottles. There is also a possibility that not all of toxins created in the melting down process are completely removed from the final product. As well, some recycled polyester undergoes a lot of dying or bleaching to get it the desired color, and excessive wearing of recycled polyester can irritate your skin. 

In an article put out in the January 9, 2015 issue of The New York Times, Scientists reported an alarming discovering in the Great Lakes of Michigan. They found that the lakes are teeming with tiny plastic “microfibers”. They described microfibers as “exceedingly fine filaments made of petroleum-based materials such as polyester and nylon that are woven together into fabrics”. Essentially when we wash clothing or cleaning clothes, or other fabric products made from synthetic fibers, thousands of tiny pieces break off and go down the drain to the water treatment facility. The fibers are so minuscule they are ending up in our bodies of water, some fibers are even too small to see with the naked eye. These fibers are ending up inside of fish, and there is also a chance that they are ending up in our drinking water.

 At the end of the day, plastic is plastic. No matter how you manipulate it, plastic does not simply go away. And perhaps turning plastic into clothing is more harmful than it is helpful. It’s hard to tell right now what the long-term effect these synthetic microfibers will have on plant, animal, human, and environmental health; but one thing is for sure it’s a lot easier to remove a plastic bottle from a body of water than it is to remove thousands of microscopic fibers.