Polyester accounts for nearly 60% of the fabrics found in our clothes today.1 That’s over 20 million tons of polyester—and it doesn’t even account for the dozens upon dozens upon dozens of other products that also use the material.
No matter how much you love clothes, those numbers should cause you a bit of alarm. Aside from the immense toll that producing polyester takes on the environment, there just isn’t any good way to get rid of it when we’re done using it. Instead of biodegrading, it hangs around our landfills, slowly decomposing and emitting dangerous gasses.
But if there’s a bright spot on the horizon when it comes to polyester and sustainable fabric, it just might be recycled polyester. Since the first plastic bottle was reused for polyester in 1977, recycled polyester has become one of the most widely recycled materials in the world and at BÉIS we are now using it to create our bags.2<7sup> If you are interested in upping the sustainable travel game, look no further than our Fall Recycle Collection featuring recycled polyester among other eco-friendly fabrics.
Interested in learning more about recycled polyester? From how it’s made to how sustainable it really is, here’s everything you need to know.
What is Recycled Polyester Fabric?
Recycled polyester fabric, or recycled polyester terephthalate (rPET) as it’s known to chemists, is a synthetic fabric that’s made from virgin polyester. It’s believed to be a more sustainable, eco-friendly alternative to its parent textile.
Recycled polyester fabric is sourced from post-consumer, polyester-based products, like plastic water bottles, soda bottles, and food jars.3 It’s used to produce a diverse range of new products, including:
- Blankets and bedding
- Car parts
- Clothing and other apparel
- Bags, such as our Expandable Backpack, East to West Tote, and Cosmetic Organizer
In other words, you can think of it as regular polyester reincarnated, or Polyester: The Sequel. And as is often the case when it comes to sequels, to fully enjoy part two, you need to understand a little bit about the original.
So, what is polyester?
Without getting too technical, polyester is a type of synthetic resin known as a polymer. It was invented in the 1940s and rose to prominence during the second half of the 20th century thanks to its incredible durability, inexpensive means of production, and versatility.4
Polymers like polyester are composed of long chains of repeating molecules that are very tough to break down, which contribute to polyester’s two primary characteristics:
These days, polyester is one of the most prevalent man-made materials in the world. Its uses are legion and include everything from textiles for polyester clothing, bedding, and furniture upholstery, to mouse pads, LCD displays, and even the finish on your guitar.
How is Recycled Polyester Made?
There are two primary methods for producing recycled polyester:6
- Mechanical method – Plastic waste is shredded into fine, thin flakes, which gets melted down to liquid form. Then, the melted flakes are woven through spinnerets and shaped into recycled polyester yarn fibers.
- Chemical method – For this method, plastic waste is melted down to its original polyester form before it’s used to make new products.
While both methods are effective at reducing environmental impact and creating usable products, the chemical method is slightly more sustainable. The mechanical method of recycling polyester results in a less durable fiber, especially after repeated recycling, while the chemical process tends to preserve the polyester more.
That said, you get what you pay for: of the two, the chemical process is far more expensive.
Is Recycled Polyester Better For the Environment?
The sustainability of recycled polyester fabric is a complicated subject. There’s no doubt that rPET is a far more eco-friendly option than regular polyester. Because the primary ingredient in virgin polyester is petroleum, a fossil fuel, producing it comes at a tremendous environmental cost.
Among other ways, fossil fuels harm the planet by causing air pollution, water pollution, and emitting greenhouse gasses.7
But because the manufacturing processes of recycled polyester don’t require any of the raw materials needed to produce virgin polyester, we’re able to manufacture it in a way that minimizes environmental impact and encourages sustainable living. In general, producing recycled polyester fiber is better for the planet because it:
- Produces fewer carbon emissions
- Reduces reliance on fossil fuels
- Requires less energy
Additionally, recycled polyester that’s made from post-consumer plastics cuts back on the amount of plastic garbage crowding our landfills and clogging our waterways—that’s another plus for the planet!
What Are the Drawbacks of Recycled Polyester Fabric?
Listen, we said that sustainability is a complicated subject when it comes to recycled polyester. We weren’t kidding. Yes, the process of producing recycled polyester is better for the environment. And yes, recycling polyester reduces our need to produce more virgin polyester. These are good things.
Even so, there are a few drawbacks where recycled polyester fiber is concerned. Some of the biggest areas of concern include:
What You Should Know About Recycled Polyester and Microplastics
Another potential drawback of manufacturing rPET is microplastics. Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that break off of larger pieces. They’re smaller than 5 millimeters in length and include even tinier microbeads from some facial exfoliants and toothpaste.9
Microplastics are small pollutants that cause big problems: polluting waters, harming water life, and damaging fragile ecologies. According to the National Ocean Service, microplastics are the most common type of pollutant in oceans and in the North American Great Lakes.
Of particular concern is a type of microplastic known as fibrous microplastics. These are microplastics that come specifically from synthetic fibers. Scientists believe these pose an even greater risk to the environment than non-fibrous types of microplastics. In fact, fibrous microplastics account for an estimated 0.5 million tons of microplastics that enter the ocean every year.10
Unfortunately, even recycled polyester fibers can shed microplastics. This is known to happen especially when these fibers are put in the laundry. The microplastics take a trip through the waterpark of your plumbing system, eventually winding up in the ocean.
The good news is, there are ways to wash your recycled polyester clothes and bags in a way that lessens the amount of microplastics they shed.6 Here are a few tips:
At the end of the day, using recycled polyester fabrics is still a more environmentally conscious option than virgin polyester. Taking steps to prevent microplastic shedding on laundry day is a simple way to contribute to larger changes by making a smaller personal impact.
BÉIS: Where Style and Sustainability Meet
These days, it’s up to each of us to make decisions that are better for the planet—and, in turn, better for everyone. One way that consumers can contribute to the cause is by shopping sustainably. That means opting for responsibly manufactured products from companies that put the environment first.
If you’re looking for a company that prizes sustainability without skimping on style, you’ve found: welcome to BÉIS.
At BÉIS, we’re committed to improving the planet by improving your life. And we’re all about that bag, crafting beautiful, high-quality items for travel or every day. From luggage that goes the extra mile to tote bags for work, the weekend, or whisking yourself off on exotic vacations—plus backpacks, baby bags, and travel accessories—BÉIS has your bag and your back.
Experience the BÉIS difference. Explore our Fall Core Collection today filled with recycled materials and bags.
- Pruden, James. "Preference for Polyester May Make Fast Fashion Brands Vulnerable." The Robin Report. 10 July, 2017. https://www.therobinreport.com/preference-for-polyester-may-make-fast-fashion-brands-vulnerable/#
- Farag, Marie. "What is rPET?" Waiakea. 23 May, 2020. https://waiakea.com/blogs/content/what-is-rpet#
- "Understanding PVC and RPET." Heritage Paper. 26 May, 2017. https://www.heritagepaper.net/understanding-pvc-and-rpet/
- "Uses of polyester." ByUS. https://byjus.com/chemistry/uses-of-polyester/
- "How long does it take to decompose?" Twin Enviro Services. 11 october, 2019. https://twinenviro.com/2019/10/11/how-long-does-it-take-to-decompose/#
- "What is Recycled Polyester? The Best RPET Clothing Brands." The Honest Consumer. 10 June, 2021. https://www.thehonestconsumer.com/blog/clothing-made-from-recycled-plastic#
- Donaghy, Tim. "8 reasons why we need to phase out the fossil fuel industry." Greenpeace. 22 November, 2021. https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/research/8-reasons-why-we-need-to-phase-out-the-fossil-fuel-industry/#
- Schwerdfeger, Erika. "Real Talk: How Sustainable Is Recycled Polyester? Here’s the Surprising Truth." Brightly. 23 April, 2021. https://brightly.eco/recycled-polyester-impact/
- "What are microplastics?" National Ocean Service. https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/microplastics.html
- "Microplastics from textiles: towards a circular economy for textiles in Europe." European Environment Agency. Updated March 17, 2022. https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/microplastics-from-textiles-towards-a#