Updated: Jun 11
Polyester accounts for roughly half of the overall fiber market and around 80% of synthetic fibers, according to the Textile Exchange Preferred Fiber Materials Report 2021. It quickly became popular due to its durability, versatility, and low cost. However, the benefits come with a host of environmental and health risks that should not be ignored.
History of Polyester
It was the early 1930s when W.H. Carothers, a DuPont employee, invented polyester. At the time it was impossible to commercially develop his creation, so he became involved in new projects, including the work that led to nylon fibers.
Carothers left the company in 1937. Four years later he sold to DuPont the rights to the polyester patent, shortly after it was issued.
In the meantime, the Calico Printers' Association (CPA) from Manchester, England, developed a research program to explore polyester. After a few years, the initiative led to impressive results, including the creation of polyethylene terephthalate (PET). This caught the attention of ICI, a British company that had a partnership with DuPont. In 1947 the two companies negotiated with CPA the rights over the new invention - DuPont would control de patent in the US, while ICI would manage it for the rest of the world.
While DuPont and ICI were pioneers and had an unquestionable market advantage, other companies also began producing PET to capture the growing demand during the 1950s.
In the 1960s, polyester was already widely used for making colorful, bold prints, and bright hues. The fabric was perfect for the mod and psychedelic styles that were popular during the era, and it quickly became associated with the youth culture of the time.
In the 1970s, polyester became even more popular, as disco fashion swept the nation. The shiny, lightweight fabric was perfect for the glittering and glamorous style that dominated disco fashion, and it was used for everything from disco pants to blouses and dresses. The fabric's durability and resistance to wrinkles also made it popular for travel and everyday wear.
However, not everyone loved the fabric. Some people found it to be uncomfortable, especially in hot weather, and others criticized it for being synthetic and not environmentally friendly. As a result, in the 1980s and 1990s, natural fibers such as cotton and silk regained popularity, and polyester fell out of favor.
Despite its ups and downs, polyester has remained crucial to the fashion industry. Today, it is often blended with other fibers to create fabrics that combine the best qualities of both materials. In addition, more sustainable versions of polyester were developed, such as recycled ones made from plastic bottles.
Dangers of Polyester
1. Environmental impact
Because it is made from synthetic fibers derived from petroleum, the production of polyester involves a lot of energy and water. It is also not biodegradable and can take hundreds of years to break down in landfills.
2. Health risks
To become stain-resistant, flame-retardant, and wrinkle-free, Polyester is treated with a variety of chemicals. Some of them, including formaldehyde and phthalatesin, have been linked to health problems like cancer, asthma, disruption of the endocrine system, and allergic reactions.
3. Microplastic pollution
The substance is a major contributor to the problem of microplastic pollution. When polyester clothes are washed, they release tiny plastic fibers that end up in the ocean and other water sources. These microplastics are ingested by marine animals and can make their way up the food chain, ultimately affecting human health.
Alternatives to Polyester
Fortunately, there are many alternatives to polyester that are more sustainable and less harmful to the environment and human health. These include:
Econyl is a recycled nylon made from discarded fishing nets, industrial plastic waste, and carpet scraps. It is more environmentally friendly than virgin nylon and polyester, as it diverts waste from landfills and reduces the need for new resource extraction. Econyl can be used in a variety of products, including swimwear, activewear, and accessories.
2. Tencel Lyocell
Tencel Lyocell is a form of rayon made from sustainably sourced eucalyptus trees. It requires less water and energy to produce than cotton and has a closed-loop production process that recycles 99% of the solvent used in its production. Tencel Lyocell is more environmentally friendly than polyester as it is biodegradable and does not release microplastics into the environment. It is often used in clothing, bedding, and home textiles.
Piñatex is a sustainable alternative to leather made from pineapple leaf fibers. It is more environmentally friendly than polyester and leather as it is made from a waste product and does not require new land use or water resources. Piñatex is also biodegradable and has a lower carbon footprint than synthetic materials. It is often used in fashion accessories and upholstery.
Sorona is a type of bio-based polyester made from corn. It has a lower carbon footprint than traditional polyester and is more environmentally friendly as it is made from a renewable resource. Sorona can be used in a variety of products, including apparel, automotive interiors, and carpets.
While polyester may be a convenient and affordable fabric, it comes with a host of environmental and health risks. As consumers, we can choose to support more sustainable and eco-friendly alternatives that can provide much of the benefits with much less harm.