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rPET: Sustainable Fashion’s Problem Child

Updated: May 11, 2022

Originally published by Verte Magazine.

What is rPET?

In fashion, rPET (or recycled polyethylene terephthalate) typically means single-use plastic bottles, old fishing nets, and industrial waste turned into recycled polyester.

We’re all familiar with polyester, because it’s everywhere. It’s the most widely used fabric in the world, accounting for 52% of all fiber production in 2020 (double the production of cotton). Polyester is part of the ‘fossil fabrics’ family, made from petroleum, gas, and oil. These synthetic (read: plastic) fabrics account for 1.35% of the world’s oil consumption, which may not seem like much, but that’s more than Spain’s annual use. Each year, it takes about 70 million barrels of oil to create virgin polyester alone. So making polyester out of plastic waste is surely a good thing, right?

Unfortunately, rPET has become sustainable fashion’s latest problem child.

What originated as a better-for-the-planet alternative to virgin synthetics was quickly appropriated by fast fashion brands as their ‘saving grace.’ Cue utterly unsubstantiated greenwashing claims, landing rPET with a mixed reputation.

So, is it sustainable or greenwashing? The short answer is both. Let’s break down the good and the bad about rPET.

The Good:

On the production side, rPET is significantly better for the planet than virgin synthetics. Manufacturing rPET produces 79% less CO2 emissions and uses 59% less energy (but still more than natural fibers like cotton, wool, and hemp).

Some argue that turning bottles into fabric is a one-way ticket to the landfill for otherwise recyclable bottles. In other words, creating polyester diverts bottles out of a perfectly functional circular system. The argument is that a single-use bottle can be reused up to 15 times and then recycled many times after that.

In my mind, this is ambitious. Most single-use bottles are rarely used 15 times, and, sadly, few people ensure that every bottle is cleaned and deposited into the correct waste stream. Only 26% of PET bottles were recycled in the US last year, meaning 74% of PET bottles went straight to landfill. Worse still, the UK exported more than half of the plastic claimed to be recycled to China and Turkey, where the plastic was burned, dumped, or polluted into waterways.

So yes, most PET bottles could have been recycled in a closed-loop system but weren’t. They went straight to the landfill or incinerator anyway. When we look at it this way, recycled polyester gives waste a second life. And, in an ideal world, a garment made from rPET lives a long life: worn at least 30 times, mended, borrowed, resold, and even potentially upcycled into a new garment.

Plus, with only 1% of materials recycled into new fiber, 99% of anything made into clothing is condemned to landfill. Wouldn’t we rather give waste another lap around the sun than continue to devour dirty, non-renewable fossil fuels?

The Bad:

Think of it this way: recycled polyester is easier on the planet on the production side, but once it’s made into a garment, its ecological impact is no different than that of virgin synthetics. This is for a few reasons.

The first issue with recycled polyester is that PET bottles are mechanically recycled into fabric: the bottles are chopped, melted, spun into thread, and woven. Each time PET is recycled, it degrades the fiber’s quality and strength, meaning the rPET garment can’t be recycled infinitely, or even a second time in some cases.

This is where the greenwashing comes in. As rPET can’t be recycled, any claims of circularity or recyclability are false.

Second, the impact of rPET made from ocean plastics (made into regenerated nylon and polyester) is oversold. Pulling plastic from the ocean is, of course, a good thing. But some argue that current ocean-plastic extraction makes almost no difference to the vast amount of waste in our seas. Using ocean plastic is better than nothing, but beware of over-exaggeration and the potential for greenwashing. This is not to say that all brands using ocean plastics are spouting lies — I’d argue they are still doing good for the fashion industry.

Third, recycled polyester sheds just as many microplastics as garments made from virgin polyester. According to the Changing Markets Foundation, ‘every time synthetic clothes are manufactured, worn, washed or disposed of, they release microplastics.’ Synthetic fibers now account for 35% of all marine microplastic pollution, and 73% of microfibers found in the Arctic Ocean came from polyester alone. Yeesh. At the end of the day, rPET is still plastic, which means it will not biodegrade in the same way natural fibers do.

rPET: a Stopgap Solution

Let’s be clear, rPET is not a long-term solution. It doesn’t address the industry's core issues, including fossil fuel dependency, overproduction, and a linear system. rPET doesn’t stunt plastic consumption, slow the torrent of synthetics piling up in landfills and our waterways, or move the industry toward a circular economy.

So really, rPET is a global janitorial scheme. It helps deal with our existing waste but does nothing to stop the creation of the mess in the first place. However, we do have an enormous amount of waste that needs cleaning up, and recycling plastic (even if only once) is undoubtedly better than devouring fossil fuels to create new synthetic fabrics. In the end, rPET should be seen as a temporary, stopgap measure, not the end-all-be-all solution that fast fashion brands claim it be.

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