Sustainability: Plastics & Polyester: Petroleum’s Ugly Stepchildren
• less than 10% of plastic has ever been recycled (1.)
• 64% of the fibers in the global market are synthetic (2.)
For the uninitiated, polyester is a synthetic fabric. Rayon, nylon and acrylic are also synthetic fabrics. Synthetic fabrics are largely less expensive than natural fiber fabrics. Both polyester and plastic are by-products of the petroleum industry. More than 60% of apparel out in the market right now comes from the petroleum industry. If that isn’t cringe-y enough, plastics and polyesters never go away completely.
Before we go any further, a brief history about polyester and plastic!
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) was created in 1941 in a DuPont laboratory and was eventually made into the fiber ‘nylon' for textile use. Five years later a chemist in England took this work and built upon it creating the fiber ‘polyester’. In 1951, DuPont built upon that and marketed a polyester fabric called “Dacron”. It was the fabric of the future. Stain and wrinkle resistant, it could be made to feel and look like cotton or silk. Polyester fibers were sturdy, resilient and tough enough for outwear fabrics.
Fast forward to 1973 and the first plastic PET beverage bottle is released, certified safe and nonleaching (and also from the DuPont laboratories). By 2017 a million plastic beverage bottles were purchased every minute, globally, according to data published in The Guardian siting Euromonitor International’s global packaging trends report. (3.)
Now back to the problem of “never” going away…
Polyester and plastic do not biodegrade (some scientists have ventured they have a 450 year lifespan, but it’s hard to know given how “new” these materials are when compared to natural fibers like cotton or wool). We do know, however, that they are creating severe consequences for the planet right now. And it’s not just the obvious plastic bottles we see washed up on coastlines or landfills bursting with discarded clothing. It’s what we cannot see that is harder to deal with. Polyester clothing sheds. Each time you wash and dry your favorite cozy fleece or super cute acrylic sweater, micro-particles go into the air and waterways. Micro-fibers have been found on Mount Everest. (4.) Micro-fibers have been detected in the air over parts of England where there is garment manufacturing. Micro-plastics have been found in every ocean all around the world. These small micro-particles unwittingly become food for the small fish which in turn get eaten by bigger fish which means they are now part of the food chain. (5.) (5a.)
So now what?
How do we go forward? What do we do, how do adapt? Do we care? Do we wait for technology to swoop in and fix things? Here are some things to ponder while looking for ways forward.
Once Upon a Time, Way Back in the 60s
We filled our glasses with water from the tap. We even occasionally drank from garden hoses.
We wrapped our sandwiches in wax paper.
Our groceries and clothing purchases were put into paper bags.
Milk and juice came in wax cartons or glass bottles.
Toothpaste came in flexible metal tubes that occasionally split open and leaked blobs of toothpaste and it was super annoying but whatever.
Vitamins came in glass bottles with tin lids.
Straws were paper.
Soda came in glass bottles or aluminum cans.
Produce was not in plastic containers and we ate salads and fruits “in-season” (not shipped from half way around the globe)
Eggs came in paper cartons.
Toilet paper was wrapped in paper. Hand and body soaps were solid bars, not liquid in plastic bottles.
We bought 3-5 new pieces of quality clothing/year and kept them for several years after. (Now we buy approx. 68 new pcs of clothing/year) (6.)
We cleaned, repaired minor tears and replaced buttons to preserve a garment.
This might sound quaint but it’s worth noting that, generally, people were clean, fed, clothed and hydrated. And for most average citizens, petroleum products were pretty much relegated to a jar of Vaseline in the medicine cabinet and filling our cars with gas.
All of this nostalgia stuff is to say we can live more simply and cleanly doing less harm to the planet.
The Marie Kondo effect
While I have great appreciation for cleaning up and simplifying our lives, we must act responsibly with how and why we get rid of things. Are we getting rid of it because it is broken, soiled or torn beyond repair? Or have we just stopped loving it? Can it be given away or donated to someone in need? The popularity of Ms. Kondo’s practice has maxed-out many charity and thrift shops around the country, and most of the detritus is clothing. (7.) Many charity shops have no room and send it off as rubbish. Turns out developing nations don’t need anymore t-shirts or sweatshirts. What can’t be given away or sold ends up in landfill or gets incinerated. (8.)
How we get rid of things — from food scraps* to old sweaters — is just as important as how we buy things.
*I know I know this is for another story, but putting food scraps into compost is easy and very satisfying (the volume of your weekly kitchen trash will likely be cut by 40%). And rather than coffee grinds and fruit peels emitting greenhouse gases when they are inside a plastic trash bag in a landfill getting heated by the sun they are consorting with worms and other scraps to turn into healthy compost to be returned to the earth. So put simply, its one of the few things we can do that is good for the earth.
As I pointed out previously, plastic recycling was a broken promise. We believed in the marketing. We wanted to protect the planet and it was only a little inconvenient to have to do all of that sorting. Apparel and textile recycling is in its infancy stages. Chemists and engineers are madly looking for funding to create scalable solutions. Unfortunately, recycling textiles is much more complicated than plastic. It’s the kind of complicated that requires federal guidelines and cooperation of states and citizenry.
So before you bring a new clothing item into your life, ask the question: “Does it spark joy?” Is it made well? Will you love it next year? Is it an investment piece? Is it made sustainably and of sustainable materials? What IS a sustainable material? If you answer yes to some of these questions, it’s likely you will keep it for many years and not send it out into the universe after wearing only a few times, as has been the habit of many since Fast Fashion made it easy to do so.
Sustainable means it is renewable, enduring and never harmful, something that is capable of being continued. Sustainable clothing starts with farming. Natural fibers come from farming — cotton, linen, hemp, wool from sheep, cashmere from goats. Silk, which comes from mulberry tree leaves and worms, can be a non-starter for some since a living animal (the worm) dies in the process, thereby making it not truly sustainable. Natural fibers will break down when left out in nature. They will not harm the soil in the process.
A garment is sustainably made if the people who farmed the fiber, spun, wove and dyed it are paid fairly and work in a decent environment. A garment is sustainably made if the process does not pollute nearby water streams. Factories should be using the cleanest energy technologies available in their region. To sum up: No harm should come to people, animals or the earth in the process of making textiles or an article of clothing.
Low Hanging Fruit (or how to get your house in order)
It is easy to be overwhelmed, as I am every other day, by rising temperatures and sea levels. It is easy to feel as if this is all out of our control. There are some activist-y things one can do like writing local elected officials to ban plastics or start a petition to boycott whatever you see as a problem. As consumers we have some power, starting with but not limited to…
• beverages in plastic bottles (that’s an easy one)
• laundry detergent in plastic bottles (you can find detergent available in paper bottles and boxes)
• hand soap in plastic bottles (remember bars of soap — yes that’s still a thing!)
• polyester/synthetic clothing — unless you know you will keep it for several years and will hand it down or donate when the time comes
• plastic wrap or baggies — there are re-useable or biodegradable alternatives
• the plastic baggie the guy at the deli counter wants to put the lunchmeat in
• the plastic bag at the check-out of any store — always keep a re-usable, packable bag in your bag or pocket
• shampoo and conditioner bars (there are many brands out there)
• lotions in glass or tin containers • lip balms/tints in paper tubes
• tampons in paper applicator tubes (this was the only option through the 60s)
• toothpaste tablets that come in (very cute) glass jars; refills come in paper pouches
• sustainable home product/apparel e-commerce sites; or maybe you’re lucky enough to live near a store that sells sustainable products
In closing, many apparel brands are building sustainability teams and are setting near and long term goals to reduce their negative impact on the planet. In the meantime, we can do our part by buying less, buy thoughtfully and buy only what you will love.
And don’t buy beverages in plastic bottles.