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Polyester: A Fashionable Contradiction

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Lucy Merriman, https://www.lucymerriman.com/

In her first piece for 2019, resident digital printing expert Debbie McKeegan explores one of the most common fabrics in fashion: polyester. With sustainability and pollution on the minds of many, Debbie shares a world in which we could be using only recycled polyester by 2030. Debbie is the CEO of TexIntel – an expert advisory practice serving the Creative, Digital and Print Textile manufacturing Industry.

How do we re-fashion fashion?

Firstly we have to understand the fabrics we consume. Polyester has grown to represent 55% of the world’s fibre consumption, and acts as a staple of our industry. It’s big business, when viewed as a percentage of an industry that’s valued at $1.3 trillion (US).

Polyester is a much misunderstood synthetic fibre in the world of Fashion, maligned by the sustainable lobby because it is derived from oil-based resins, and because it consumes large amounts of energy in its current process of manufacture which must be reformed.

Yet, it does have many relative ecological merits when compared to cotton and other fibres and their energy consumption, water use, social and environmental impact, and manufacturing processes. All of which have to be balanced against the perceived image of the fibre as wasteful and polluting.

But first, some facts: what is polyester?

Polyester is a synthetic polymer made of purified terephthalic acid (PTA) or its dimethyl ester dimethyl terephthalate (DMT) and monoethylene glycol (MEG), all derived during the refining and distillation of crude oil.

Originating from research, headed by W.H. Carothers, working for DuPont on the development of synthetic fibres. British scientists Whinfield and Dickson, took up the research in the late 1930s and eventually patented PET or PETE in 1941. Polyethylene terephthalate forms the basis for synthetic fibers like Dacron, Terylene and Polyester.

Polyester is a synthetic fibre, with a high resistance to water, wind and the environment when compared to cellulose (plant derived) fibres.

In 1946, DuPont bought all legal rights from Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI). Over the years, fuelled by public demand for the types of fabrics that polyester made possible, polyester fibre production has not only grown enormously, but its rate of growth is accelerating. With no sign of a slow down in its use predicted, when you allow for the global growth as estimated by the UN (United Nations), the world population is set to grow to 8.5 billion people by 2030 with a huge rise in a spending population within the middle classes which are set to increase to 5 billion, their affluennce will increase demand for and the consumption of fashion.

Polyester is formed as a resin, which is then extruded as a fibre. Once spun, knitted or woven polyester exists as multiple fabric types, many of which mimic cellulose fabric constructions from chiffons to Panama weaves and from silks, satins to knitted stretch jersey, with uses spanning every sector of fabric through the vast product SKUs of Apparel, Athleisurewear, Sportswear and Interiors.

Polyester and the fabric derivatives produced from it have been popular for many reasons: they are reasonably priced, readily available worldwide, tough and durable, and, above all, they can be engineered to produce an enormous variety and range of fabrics and products.

Yet, as the sustainability agenda grows in significance, many experts point to the substantial fault lines in the polyester equation. It’s made from oil, a non-renewable resource. It isn’t bio-degradable, and will be with us for 300 years in landfills. It’s production is energy greedy, with power stations built to supply the electricity required by its production plants. It’s production currently causes large scale local pollution, and importantly its bi-products are dispersed into the water table of producing countries which pollute the environment.

Polyester also sheds microfibres – tiny micro-beads of plastic – which are released from the fibres with which they are spun, leading to pollution of the planet’s water systems. Beads released during the washing cycle and decaying polyester landfill waste all lead to ongoing ocean contamination with trillions of microbeads.

The largest pollutent factor is land fill; it takes 300-500 years for polyester to degrade (not bio-degrade). Care must be taken here to understand that the fabric eventually breaks down into microbeads and, as such, these disperse into the water table as trillions of microbeads which get smaller and smaller over time to become microscopic, but nevertheless ever present, over hundreds of years. As such they are then ingested by marine life and even micro-organisms, and can now be found at the very depths of the world’s deepest oceans in the sediment of the ocean floor.

Lucy Merriman, https://www.lucymerriman.com/

Yet, amid all this gloom and doom, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Polyester is recyclable and, utilising new technologies, the re-purposing of polyester is about to become big business.

This is good news for the fashion industry who could potentially be able to choose to use only recycled polyester by 2030. There are many emerging technologies that enable polyester recycling but none that can currently recycle the massive volume of worldwide waste, or create the mountain of fibre needed to truly replace the virgin polyester fibre currently utilised by the greedy fashion industry. Some of the new technologies (which use varied applications) and new science will become scalable and, as such, over the next five years we will see a new industry emerge to regenerate usable fibres from the garments and waste that we discard.

In more good news, it’s now also possible to split the blends (alternate fibres) that are spun into many polyester fabrics. Cotton and polyester are probably the most commonly known partners and, using new science that splits the fibres at a molecular level, it’s now possible to recycle to recover both components.

Its also important to note that the technology utilised for re-cycling must be sustainable and profitable if it is to be adopted globally. It has to use green energy and non-toxic chemicals if it is to be truly sustainable. The fashion industry consumes billions of metres of fabric per year, and the newly recycled polyester yarns will also have to be competitively priced if they are to be adopted by the world’s mills and fashion brands.

Most of the development of new recycling technologies is currently in the East and yet most of the waste is in the West; this poses a problem for the industry and one that has to be resolved on a local basis.

As an industry we are moving into new era and a generation of Circular Design. We must re-pupose the products we create and, in doing so, continue to provide the world with a viable fashion industry.

We must re-fashion fashion and together control the supply chain and its components, from design through to production, and onto retail in a sustainable format. Our consumers increasingly demand transparency and a successful fashion brand must deliver.

Debbie McKeegan Award winning British designer, Debbie McKeegan, began her digital journey almost two decades ago – pre-Photoshop, and pre-digital print. With a manufacturing background, a vast knowledge of traditional textiles (from both a design and production perspective), and an interest in CAD from its onset, today Debbie serves as an expert in the world of digital print. Debbie has developed many new digital production practices, and speaks as an authority on digital design and print worldwide. She is the CEO of TextIntel - an expert advisory practice serving the Creative, Digital and Print Textile manufacturing industry. As a WhichPLM contributor, she is able to pass on her wisdom as a digital pioneer; embracing the creative freedom offered with the advancement of new technology, she looks forward to sharing her knowledge.