It is no secret to anyone that we live in a changing and constantly evolving world. The nature of this change and development includes the emergence of new materials. We see this in all walks of life: industry, agriculture, art, construction, and much more.
In the field of fashion, you can see chiffon, crepe, denim, poplin, which are a wide array of fashion fabrics on the market, each with their own history, characteristics, and uses. Most fabrics fall into one of two categories: natural fabrics (like linen and silk) and synthetic fabrics like (neoprene and spandex).
One of the most widely known synthetic fabric is polyester. It rose to prominence as an inexpensive material for suiting and other clothing. Polyester and polyester blends are now the most popular man-made fabrics worldwide.
What Is Polyester Fabric?
Polyester is a synthetic fabric that is usually derived from petroleum. This fabric is one of the world’s most popular textiles, and is used in thousands of different consumer and industrial applications.
Chemically, polyester is a polymer primarily composed of compounds within the ester functional group. Most synthetic and some plant-based polyester fibers are made from ethylene, which is a constituent of petroleum that can also be derived from other sources.
The fabric we now know as polyester began its climb towards its current critical role in the contemporary economy in 1926s as Terylene, which was first synthesized by W.H. Garothers in the UK. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, British scientists continued to develop better forms of ethylene fabric, and these efforts eventually garnered the interests of American investors and innovators.
How Does Polyester Affect the Environment?
Polyester has a generally negative impact on the environment. From its production to its use to its disposal, this fabric has unfortunate environmental impact at every stage of its cycle because:
- Polyester is not biodegradable: Biodegradable essentially means that an item can be broken down into increasingly smaller pieces by bacteria, fungi, or microbes to be reabsorbed by the surrounding environment, ideally without causing any pollution. While cotton, wool, and silk will completely biodegrade within a few months to a few years, as a plastic, polyester will take hundreds of years to completely biodegrade. This contaminates soil and water resources as it cannot be decomposed by micro-organism. It also can last for centuries and cause environmental problems that affect more than just the land.
- Polyester is difficult to recycle: Many garments are not made from polyester alone, but rather from a blend of polyester and other materials. In that case, it is more difficult, if not impossible, to recycle them. “In some cases, it is technically possible, for example blends with polyester and cotton. But it is still at the pilot level. The challenge is to find process that can be scaled up properly and we are not there yet”, said Magruder to Suston Magazine last year. Certain laminations and finishings applied to the fabrics can also render them unrecyclable. Even clothes that are 100% polyester cannot be recycled forever.
- Polyester releases microplastics into air and water: Polyester will take hundreds of years to completely degrade. Before that happens, however, it will be degraded into little micro fibers. These micro fibers slough off certain types of clothes into the air when we are wearing them, and flow into our waterways from our washing machines. Recent research estimates that globally, 176500 metric tons of synthetic microfibers - chiefly polyester and nylon - are released every year. And we are eating, breathing, and drinking them. This is dangerous for us and aquatic life, as these microfibers can attract carcinogenic toxins. These are carried into our bodies through the ingestion of microfibers, which can then lodge in our gut.
Furthermore, the process of transforming ethylene into polyethylene terephthalate fibers produces more harmful synthetic byproducts, and the dyes and treatment processes used by polyester fabric manufacturers may also make their way into the surrounding environment and poison the area’s ecosystems.
Why Do People Choose Polyester?
- Polyester is very durable and resistant to many chemicals
- It is resistant to shrinking, stretching, wrinkling and abrasions making it a popular option for the fashion industry.
- The fibers used to create polyester are very strong yet lightweight
- The fibers are easily dyed
- It retains its shape very well
- Polyester fabric is easy to look after and it can be washed and dried at home, so it is a popular choice for outdoor clothing
What Are the Popular Uses of Polyester?
- Coats and anoraks
- Bedding such as sheets, duvet covers, and sleeping bags
- Sewing threads
- Luggage and other bags
We cannot deny polyester has come a long way from the scratchy suits of 1970s. It has been refined and tweaked until we can get all sorts of textile doppelgangers out of it, from fake silk to fake suede and faux fur. It is washable and sturdy. It is a performance textile used in activewear, athleisure, and outdoor gear. It is so popular that it is difficult to avoid and may still be beneficial in certain items despite the drawbacks. It continues to be studied so we may eventually have more environmentally friendly polyester options.