February 11, 2021
What is Recycled Polyester?
These days we are likely to see recycled polyester as a component in everything from furniture to apparel to kitchen gadgets. So exactly what is recycled polyester?
First let’s define what is polyester. Invented in the 1940’s, polyester is a synthetic (man-made) fiber that is composed of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET and made primarily from petroleum. Most commonly extracted from the earth via drilled wells, petroleum is then refined by heating the crude substance to its boiling point to separate the many compounds, including PET.
Polyester fiber, when woven or knit into fabric, is lightweight, quick drying, easy care, soft to the touch, yet durable and performance enhancements such as stretch and antimicrobial protection can be readily added.
However, both the extraction and the refinement of petroleum have been identified as disruptive to Earth’s natural ecosystem. Petroleum is a limited resource and remaining reserves are often located under fragile ecosystems such as Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which has recently been in the news. In addition, the gasses emitted during the petroleum refining process are a significant source of pollution and have detrimental effects on humans, animals, vegetation, water bodies and the atmosphere. We knew none of these negative consequences back in the 40s when PET was first introduced and since then entrepreneurs have found plenty of ways to use polyester to improve everything from outdoor gear to packaging.
Like traditional or “virgin” polyester, recycled polyester is made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET). However, instead of utilizing raw petroleum to make fiber, recycled polyester is made of existing polyester products including plastic bottles. In 1993, Patagonia was the first apparel manufacturer to use recycled plastic bottles in their fleece garments.
Now almost 30 years later recycle PET from plastic bottles has become a commodity, which has inspired innovative manufactures to look into other sources for recycled PET. Recent technology has enabled the recycling of polyester cutting scraps left over from the manufacturing process and excess polyester yardage that never made it into a garment. What’s next? The textile and garment industries are aiming at full circularity, where worn polyester garments can be fully recycled and returned to the fiber level to become new garments.