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Polyester is Plastic. What you need to know

Polyester is Plastic. What you need to know

If you are giving up plastic, you might want to consider looking in your closet and evaluate what's lurking there

The most obvious plastics to get out of our lives are single use plastics. But you might also want to look in your closet for two others that may surprise you and they are two of the biggest plastic offenders. Shoes and clothes. Maybe even handbags, especially if you are a vegan. Here's some info about plastic & your fashion that might help get a quick understanding of what's really in your closet.

Polyester and nylon are plastic

Most fast fashion is made from cheap and easy to print fabrics like polyester. Polyester is a huge problem because of how it's sourced, how it is made, how it lives and how it dies. Yep every stage of it's unnatural forever life.  No redeeming features really except the commercial happiness it gives the label manufacturer and hopefully how it looks on you for the time it spends on your back. 

How is Polyester made?

Polyester is a synthetic fibre and is manmade from petrochemicals.  Synthetic fibres are processed through a series of highly toxic chemical processes and do not decompose naturally.  The main chemicals used in the production of polyester are terephthalic acid (TA) or dimethyl terephthalate, which are reacted with ethylene glycol. Polyester fibre manufacture also involves a process of purifying TA and is based on bromide-controlled oxidation. 

Environmental damage from the production of polyester can be caused through emissions to air, and if water is used in the process and discharged untreated, it can include: heavy metal cobalt; manganese salts; sodium bromide; antimony oxide (which is licensed, despite it being a known carcinogen); and titanium dioxide.


Nylon or polyamide fibres are also made from petrochemicals. In the production of nylon, raw materials including hexamethylendiamine and adipic acid are combined to form a polyamide salt. The two chemicals react under high pressure and heat to create a polymer that is then extracted and cooled with water. The production of nylon is known to be energy intensive and also produces emissions of nitrous oxide, which is a potent greenhouse gas.

Bamboo - wunderkind or not?

Just a word on bamboo. Some of it's good and some, not so much. The way to think about bamboo is not to get caught up in all the bamboo plant amazements, while ignoring how fabrics are made.

Bamboo is amazing. It is the world’s fastest growing plant and can be grown without pesticides or chemicals. Bamboo itself is 100% biodegradable and takes in more carbon dioxide than trees and breathes out more oxygen than trees as well.  But that is bamboo before it becomes a fibre and fabric. While most of the bamboo product on the market is sourced from a natural and renewable source, it is actually processed as rayon, which is highly chemical intensive and uses a lot of energy.  

There are two types of bamboo fabric. 1) Natural bamboo (sometimes called bamboo “linen” because of its hand and drape) that is extracted directly from bamboo culms. 2) Bamboo viscose, or rayon (which is the most common). Bamboo viscose is where bamboo is substituted for beech as the source of raw cellulose in viscose production. It is harvested from the stalk of the bamboo grass and processed in a chemical bath of caustic soda and lye. This process is highly toxic and requires a lot of energy, it can also be very polluting unless it is carefully controlled and requires by-product recycling or effluent treatment. 

If you are buying bamboo sheets, clothes or fabrics, make sure you check out how the fabric was made. Remember, if there is limited information, it usually means 'find a better option'. 

Regenerated nylon

The facts are that we do need some clothing, especially active and swimwear to be made from lycra types of fabrics. And there are an increasingly incredible array of options around, that actually perform better for wear and planet than their virgin petroleum alternatives. More and more young designers are making garments using products like ECONYL

ECONYL is regenerated nylon 100% made from waste. It comes from nylon waste such as fishing nets from the oceans and aquaculture, fabric scraps from mills and carpets destined for landfills but it has the same performance of virgin-quality nylon.

By using waste to produce the ECONYL there is the double advantage of using discarded nylons that would otherwise be dumped into landfills or nature and avoiding the use of oil as a raw material. The ECONYL regenerated nylon can be recycled infinitely, unlike virgin plastic. That means you create new products and buy new products without ever having to use new resources.  

How plastic fabrics live and die

One of the big issues with plastic fabrics is that they shed smaller pieces of plastic when you wear or wash them.   Particularly with fluffy or feather fabrics for throws, fake fur, teddies and the like. When making a decision to purchase these fabrics or not, consider both the personal and planet issues with them. (The hairier, the more plastic fibres.)

These fabrics release plastic fibres - into the air, which you breathe in or they go into your child's mouth as she cuddles and chews on Teddy. When you wash them, the fibres, millions of them, go down the drain and out into our waterways, where marine life ingest them. Some return to us via the food chain. Through fish and salt

The growth of plant based fibres in synthetics

According to Stephanie Devine from The Very Good Bra, who make compostable bras out of eucalyptus leaves, the use of plant based fibres increased 99% between 2006 and 2016, but they still only make up 6% of our clothing whereas they should ideally represent about 37%. Synthetics growth was 56% over the same period meaning their market share is 68% where it should only be 7%. If we focus on materials alone we can make it easier to recycle or compost at end of life, unblended fabrics being much easier to recycle. Check your fabric labels before you buy.  

So, even as it doesn't really make sense to turn your fridge into a closet  or you give up wearing shoes and clothes, be aware that many of the items in your closet are contributing to our plastic waste problem - and some of them don't even get a single use. (You know who you are - anyone who ever bought any fashion item on sale and it's still in your closet with the tag on!)

It's so important to buy less, buy better and be yourself! Stop being dictated to by central marketing and some commercial entity's agenda. And that's what our fabulous fashion feature artist, Edgar Artis, says:


Images: Edgar Artis / Thanks to Toxic Fashion Education and The Very Good Bra for content direction
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