Polyester has a generally negative impact on the environment. From its production to its use to its disposal, this fabric has unfortunate environmental impacts at every stage of its use cycle.
To derive the basic materials used in the production of polyester, it’s necessary to obtain fossil fuels, which are limited resources that are also used for vital energy and plastics production applications. The process of refining crude oil into petroleum introduces various toxins into the environment, which can harm living things both in the water and on land.
Once refineries have produced petroleum, further refinement processes are required to produce the ethylene that is used to make polyester. These extraction processes are wasteful, and they introduce more toxins into the environment.
The process of transforming ethylene into polyethylene terephthalate fibers produces more harmful synthetic byproducts, and the dyes and treatment processes used by polyester fabric manufacturers may also make their way into the surrounding environment and poison the area’s ecosystems.
Furthermore, the manufacture of polyester often has significant social and cultural costs. The vast majority of polyester producers worldwide essentially engage in slave labor, and polyester workers are exposed to toxic chemicals that may cause neurological damage, cancer, or other potentially fatal conditions. Major polyester manufacturing companies are almost always owned by major international corporations, which enrich themselves while exploiting uneducated people in impoverished countries.
The environmentally harmful impacts of polyester continue as this fabric makes its way into the consumer market. According to a groundbreaking 2014 study, washing polyester fabrics by hand or in washing machines releases tiny synthetic microfibers into the water supply.
While acrylic fabric was found to be the worst offender in terms of microfiber pollution, polyester came in as a close second. Microfiber pollution in the water supply harms the health of marine life, and it also contaminates drinking water in locations all over the world.
As they do with all types of apparel, consumers inevitably discard their polyester garments. Unlike biodegradable fibers like wool, cotton, or silk, however, polyester does not naturally degrade in the environment. While it’s impossible to know exactly how long polyester will remain in the Earth’s ecosystems before it degrades, environmental scientists all agree that synthetic fabrics like polyester may take centuries to fully break down due to natural environmental conditions.
Overall, polyester harms the environment at every stage in its production, and it inevitably accumulates in the world’s ecosystems with no viable methods for removing it. The advent of plant-based polyester fiber would seem to be a step toward reversing this unfortunate state of affairs, but it’s unclear whether this alternative to petroleum-based PET alternative will gain traction within the textile market significant enough to make an impact on the polluting effects of polyester.