Recycled polyester in the Fashion Industry

Polyester represents more than 50% of the fibers produced annually in the world.

Although the demand for recycled polyester considered to have a lower environmental impact
than virgin PL is constantly growing, only a still minority percentage of the polyester used (14% in
the fashion market) is obtained from secondary raw materials and mainly from PET, i.e. from
bottles. In fact, bottles of water guarantee the presence of low-contamination polymer and can be
easily recycled into yarns.

Using PET to produce polyester, while on the one hand it has contributed over the years to
inserting circularity logics in the production of the polymer, opening up fashion to the culture of
recycling, is a choice that has recently been questioned.

In fact, it is widely believed that the use of PET inserts the second life polymer into a product
which will in turn be unlikely to be recycled: if the ‘bottle to bottle’ process is in fact ‘simple’ then
the ‘fibre to fibre’ recycling it is much more difficult. A recycled polyester garment has a shorter
cycle and only to a residual circular extent: in fact, a polyester fabric – especially if mixed with
other fibers – is unlikely to go back to being recycled yarn (up cycling).

The use by fashion brands of polyester from recycled PET also creates a competitive demand that
is undermining closed-loop recycling and jeopardizing the possibility that the same food and
beverage industries achieve their circularity goals, i.e. the mandatory quantities of recycled
content in food packaging.

For this reason, if on the one hand it is important that clothing companies – but also of other
textile goods subject for example to CAMs – minimum environmental criteria – focus on increasing
the share of r-PET to improve the sustainability content of their collections, on the other hand, it is
necessary to identify solutions that allow textile-to-textile recycling.
But it’s not just a problem of the effectiveness of the recycling process.

There is no shortage of studies that highlight its environmental and social criticalities: some don’t
mince words ‘chemical recycling processes, especially for some types of plastic such as polyester
and PVC, generate harmful waste streams. However, industry experts often downplay these (and
similar) toxicity issues and describe them as purely technological roadblocks. This has
environmental justice implications, as the world’s most polluting petrochemical plants are located
near low-income communities with high proportions of ethnic minority and working-class
residents.’ (source)

So are we doing it all wrong?

Of course not, but it is necessary to find alternative solutions to rPET in the fashion industry and to
enhance fiber to fiber recycling.

In the meantime, confirming how much the demand for recycled polyester is destined to grow, we
recall the objectives launched by the Textile Exchange campaign in 2022 and already signed up by
brands and textile companies: by 2025, the share of recycled polyester must reach at least 45%, against the current 14% (assuming a growth rate of 3% in the clothing sector) but the aim is to
reach 90% by 2030.

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