The hidden plastics in our clothes and dog products

Why you should minimise Polyester usage

Have you spotted yet that dogs have their own little fashion departments at Zara and River Island? Guess what the clothes are made of? Only the cheapest quality for your pup.

Some dogs show allergies against man-made synthetics like polyester, nylon and cotton bends, as there is many additives added during the production process.

Polyester is the most common fabric used in our clothes for daily wear and accessories for our pets. Polyester or Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is a man-made synthetic fiber known as Polymer, which can be woven into many forms to create textiles. According to the Global Preferred Fiber Market Report from 2020, 62% of all fibers produced worldwide were of synthetic origin. The rise of Polyester started in the 1970s due to its inexpensive price and durability.

Mircoplastics in fish
Scientists are finding microplastics even in the rural mountain ranges of the Himalayan

How does Polyester work?

Polyester fabric is a durable material that can stand up against wear and tear. It's made from the polymerization of petroleum-derived ethylene glycol, along with purified terephthalic acid which melts when heated to produce polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Manufacturers then push this semi-crystalline fiber through spinners until it has been woven together into fabrics for your clothes or pet products.

Characteristics of Polyester: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

There are many reasons why Polyester earned the top price as humanity's "favourite" material beyond its cheap price.

It's durable The fibers are very strong, meaning they don't tear or stretch. A machine wash doesn't damage it and it doesn't require extra care

It's moisture-resistant It's plastic, so it resists droplets. Natural fiber like cotton or hemp will soak up moisture, whilst Polyester will resist it. This characteristic will make your polyester garment feel hot. We wonder how your dog would feel with the garment sticking to their body?

It retains shape Polyester is quite wrinkle-resistant. In busy times, it feels like a godsend to iron less and live more

PET itself is not toxic Otherwise, we wouldn't be able to drink out of plastic bottles. The problem is more all the chemicals that are added to Polyester during its production processes like dyes, bleaches, and blended components that can make it toxic.

That all sounds pretty okay, doesn't it....?

We all know: There is always a "but".

Scientists and microplastics
Microplastics are shedding whilst we're wearing our clothes

Polyester and microplastics

After reading the above we have a good understanding of how polyester is created. Not surprisingly, everywhere scientists look these days, they're finding microplastics: On Mangrove beaches, arctic ice, Himalayan mountains, and in our food and drinks. Also, in us and our animals.

A recent study from December 2019 found out that wearing polyester clothes sheds more microplastic fibers than washing (Study by IBCB-CNR. You can read the full study here). The Chief of the University of Plymouth explained:

The key story here is that the emission of fibers while wearing clothes is likely of a similar order of magnitude as that from washing them. That constitutes a substantial and previously unquantified direct release to the environment.

To put it bluntly. If you're wearing Polyester, you're shedding like your furry friend. But whilst they're shedding biodegradable material, we are shedding material that will take up several hundred years to degrade.

The truth is we don't understand the full health implications of plastic in the food chain and our bodies. A lot of more research is underway to understand how microplastics interact with our immune system. But if something doesn't biodegrade and moves up the food chain, it doesn't sound like good news to me.

Unsurprisingly, we are not quite done with the "buts" yet.

Polyester and Water Pollution

All the chemical production of polyester fiber is a dirty business. Factories that are not using proper wastewater treatment systems are releasing damaging substances into the environment, like antimony, cobalt, manganese salts, sodium bromide, and titanium dioxide. Polyester can also not be naturally dyed. It requires chemical dyes that are again emitted into water streams. Some were found to be carcinogenic.

Polyester and fossil fuels

Fossil fuels, such as crude oil, coal, and natural gas, are extracted with a lot of energy use and are chemically intense. The processing of fossil fuels undoubtfully leads to global warming and is linked to waterway poisoning. Burning fossil fuels is unsustainable and by adjusting our demand towards polyester and nylon, we can reduce it.

What about recycled polyester?

Globally just 12% of the material used for clothing ends up being recycled (Source). What makes recycling clothes so difficult, is that nowadays clothes don't only contain one material. They're woven blends with elastane and nylon, they have zips, buttons, or are dyed with a range of dyes. That makes recycling clothes very labour intensive. Therefore, most fashion brands use recycled plastic bottles to make new clothes.

RPet (recycled PET) can be mechanically or chemically recycled. Mechanical recycling is taking a plastic bottle, washing it, shredding it, and then turning it back into polyester chips. These are then melted down and transformed into fibers that can be spun into clothes. It doesn't allow the recycling of different types of plastic, because it is too labor-intense. The quality of the rPET also suffers as mechanically recycled plastic can't be recycled forever. When you buy products from recycled polyester, be aware that the rPET has been most likely mechanically recycled. It will most likely not be from 100% rPET and will have virgin polyester elements to keep it durable and to a certain quality standard.

The chemical solution is not yet scalable and quite expensive, offers however some hope. Chemical recycling, also called depolymerization, is taking a waste plastic product and returning it to its original monomers, which are indistinguishable from virgin polyester. The quality of the chemically recycled rPET and virgin plastic is the same. This type of recycling is what we would call a "close loop" as we wouldn't produce new plastic. You can find more about chemical recycling here.

In the end, also recycled plastic would shed microplastics into the environment. Not all polyester types shed the same. Fleece would be a high shedding type whilst most activewear has so tightly woven fibers, that it sheds the least.

Worker in hazmat suit in a landfill
Landfills release methane into the atmosphere. An even more potent gas than CO2 which also contributes to global warming

Where does this leave us?

There is currently no material that ticks all the boxes on being the worlds saviour. We can reduce our dependency on fossil fuel-based materials by wearing more plants and less plastic. Materials like Linen, Organic Cotton, or Hemp are materials to consider if you want to go eco-friendly.

There is also no perfect bio-based material that addresses all the issues (yet). All of them require multiple resources and need to be produced sustainably. They will never compete with cotton or polyester regarding cost-effectiveness. An improvement and scalability of chemical recycled rPET can create a closed-looped system, protect marine life and reduce landfill waste. However, we are still far away from scalability and we have no solutions for microplastics yet.

The textile industry contributes 10% to global CO2 emissions. (That does not include landfill methane numbers). Polyester is an important part to cater the fast-fashion consumer. The only chance to help the planet now and combat plastic is to reduce the demand. Slow-Fashion is demanded by more and more Millennials. Pay a bit more and wear natural products for longer.

The same applies to pet accessories, like dog collars, lead, and harnesses. Many are made from polyester and nylon. Due to the pandemic, more people got themselves a furry companion which means increased demand for pet accessories.

Based on what we know from above, more consciousness to buy eco-friendly pet products becomes even more important. Things you can do next are to buy biodegradable poop bags and dispose them in your garden, switch some treats to insect based and buy dog accessories made from hemp or organic cotton. It is not a perfect solution but for now we can take little steps to switch our thinking to a more eco-conscious mindset.

If you wan to learn more about the benefits of hemp as a material, please read our blog post here.

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