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It’s not an easy thing, wrapping one’s head around the issue of recycled polyester, and we do struggle to figure out if it’s a truly good thing or not. As with anything labeled 'sustainable'—especially in fashion—we guess it’s more a question of better or worse.

Even though ‘recycled polyester’ is a buzzword, implying sustainability, we do feel there are some aspects of the material that could be discussed more. It’s not entirely uncomplicated, but in the world of sustainability, it never is.

There are a few problems with polyester (recycled or not) that we can’t look away from. Firstly: It’s an oil based fiber, which means it’s made from a limited natural resource. When it’s incinerated—and this is the fate of huge amounts of discarded clothing—this fossil fuel releases carbon dioxide emissions, which have a very negative environmental impact as it contributes to climate change. Plastic materials like polyester also decomposes extremely slowly in nature (we’re talking hundreds of years), which makes the issue of a functioning textile waste disposal even more pressing.

That’s one thing. Another is the problem of microplastics; you know, those micro sized plastic particles that are released from synthetic materials—such as polyester. This becomes an issue when you wash your polyester garments at home, as it (unintentionally) releases the synthetic fibers into nature via the rinse water; they’re basically too small to get caught in the filters at the treatment plants. In marine environments, these oil based particles attract toxic chemicals that are not normally soluble in the water, which is how they end up in aquatic animals and—well yes—in us via the food we eat.

However, polyester does have its advantages: It can be created through recycling, for one. This refers to polyester made from recycled post-consumer plastic bottles or other pre-existing plastic products like old fishing nets. This type of chemical recycling is already done on a large scale in Asia, and is about to branch out globally in the coming years. From what we understand, it’s also possible today to recycle pure polyester fibers mechanically into new fabrics or other plastic products, but we’re not sure how far we are from turning this into a viable commercial method.

So, the conclusion here might be this: For polyester to exist within a completely closed loop—which would be preferable from a sustainable perspective—we would need a scalable solution for textile-to-textile recycling. But until we get there, we’re glad plastic waste, like old bottles, can come to good use in the form of beautiful fashion (just look at this dreamy Totême bag!). After all, it’s all about making use of what’s already here. 

Dress, Filippa K. Recycled polyester bag, Totême. 

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