If your clothes aren’t already made out of plastic, they will be ­ Quartz


If your clothes aren’t already made out of
plastic, they will be
Marc Bain

June 05, 2015

Polyester: the new fabric of our lives. (Reuters/Amit Dave)

Polyester has been a xture in our closets since 1951. That’s when the rst polyester suits, made from
fabric created not by a textile mill but by the American chemical company DuPont, went on sale.
It has come a long way since. Today, polyester is no longer the ugly, uncomfortable material of awful
1970s double-knit leisure suits, the kind that necessitated a marketing campaign to rehabilitate the
fabric’s image.
Nowadays, polyester is easy to miss unless you check fabric tags rigorously. It’s already ubiquitous in our
most basic garments, such as t-shirts, dresses, and jeans, while calling almost no attention to itself—and


it has allowed us to keep churning out more and more cheap clothes without a hiccup. the year polyester de nitively overtook cotton as the world’s dominant ber. has plateaued. ecome a museum piece—literally. It has become essentially invisible. As production of cotton. Between 1980 and 2007.23/2/2016 If your clothes aren’t already made out of plastic. Because it’s inexpensive. and if you squeeze it through a spinneret.9 million tonnes (34 million tons). (PRNewsFoto/Newseum) That basically means that our clothes are increasingly made of plastic. kind of like the shower head in your bathroom. or PET.8 million tons) to 30. or a long chain of repeating molecular units. easy to blend with other materials. weave lots of those bers together. they will be ­ Quartz that’s the point. Draw those laments out into thin bers. according to http://qz. you get long. The most common variety is polyethylene terephthalate. continuous laments. production of the material has surged. Will Ferrell Burgundy. the amount of polyester produced annually increased from 5. and you have a fabric. remarkably improved in its look and feel. Polyester is a polymer. polyester has stepped in to ll the void. and no worse for the environment than conventionally grown cotton. When melted. a plastic derived from crude oil that’s used to make soda and ketchup bottles.com/414223/if­your­clothes­arent­already­made­out­of­plastic­they­will­be/ 2/6 . In the last few decades.3 million tonnes (5. the world’s most popular natural ber. even as it rapidly takes over our wardrobes. it has the consistency of cold honey.

has no such limits. and cotton has to compete for that space with other crops. (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton) Even if it’s still popularly regarded as a cheap. http://qz. but the preferred alternative—because it’s cheap—is polyester. luster. environmentally harmful ber. that number is projected to nearly triple. but it can only increase their yield so much (pdf). and 95% of that synthetic ber will be polyester. and drape of polyester so much that it blends right in. they will be ­ Quartz Tecnon Orbichem.com/414223/if­your­clothes­arent­already­made­out­of­plastic­they­will­be/ 3/6 . Earth has only so much farmland available for growing the uffy white bers. sometimes smelly. Tecnon Orbichem estimates that more than 98% (pdf) of future ber production will be synthetics. however. technological advancements have improved the feel. Our global demand for clothing. and as polyester has developed new properties. By 2025.23/2/2016 If your clothes aren’t already made out of plastic.5 million tonnes (99. There are a number of synthetic options. such as the ever-expanding H&M. at Japanese retail chain Uniqlo. Among the reasons for the boom is the fact that the global cotton supply is limited. hot. such as sweat-wicking. its become ever more desirable to manufacturers. especially those producing high volumes of clothing. Science has made our cotton plants more productive. to 90. such as rayon and nylon. including food crops.8 million tons).

Rather. making it popular for athletic wear and athleisure. Polyester. they will be ­ Quartz “The double-knit suit and the plastic-looking things that people now wear to Halloween parties—that was all one thickness. But the issue isn’t really polyester. polyester is no worse—and may actually be better—than conventional cotton. including fashion-industry favorite Sacai and Comme des Garçons. That adaptability. “has allowed polyester to win. those http://qz. by contrast. Ecologically speaking. it’s the growing number of garments the world consumes. Over the years. which also requires a great deal of water (pdf).” says Darrel Collier of Tecnon Orbichem. Collier says. and one nish. for instance. An increasing share of it is made in China—Tecnon Orbichem forecasts that China will make 85% of the world’s polyester by 2025—where textile dyeing and nishing is already destroying the country’s waterways.com/414223/if­your­clothes­arent­already­made­out­of­plastic­they­will­be/ 4/6 . one yarn cross-section. such as wicking sweat. and while producing it involves some toxic chemicals. petroleum-derived polyester will trigger an ecological disaster. Innovative high-end labels.23/2/2016 If your clothes aren’t already made out of plastic. a data and analysis company for the petrochemical industry.” It’s tempting to panic that the huge rise in production of non-biodegradable (pdf). primarily because of the large quantities of toxic pesticides and fertilizers required to grow cotton. A comprehensive study (pdf) of various textiles by the European Commission found that environmental impacts per kilogram of ber are higher for cotton than other materials. polyester producers have re ned their materials so much that they can make the denier (the thickness of the ber that’s being spun) ner than a human hair. regularly use it in their creations. uses very little water. and it can also be tweaked for performance properties.

even cotton takes an eternity to break down.” http://qz. But the thing is. Linda Greer. For cotton clothes to break down. It can also be made from old plastic bottles.” Greer tells Quartz. But to put that in perspective. very little solid waste has that disposal destiny. cotton is biodegradable and polyester is not. “Suf ce it to say that very. says you actually release more carbon dioxide burning a gallon of gas than producing a polyester shirt. In theory. like this. the way we dispose of clothing makes that irrelevant. which doesn’t happen in a land ll. (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana) “They need to go to a facility that chops them up and then gives them water and oxygen and nutrients and that kind of thing. director of the health program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. allowing companies to essentially turn garbage into clothing. which means burning fuel for power and contributing to climate change. they will be ­ Quartz generally aren’t released into the environment (pdf).23/2/2016 If your clothes aren’t already made out of plastic. they have to be composted.com/414223/if­your­clothes­arent­already­made­out­of­plastic­they­will­be/ 5/6 . Its biggest drawback is that it requires a lot of energy.

com/414223/if­your­clothes­arent­already­made­out­of­plastic­they­will­be/ 6/6 . at least for as long as we have oil to make it from. The clothes we produce just won’t be made of bers grown on a plant or animal. http://qz. polyester allows us to continue with business as usual. a big increase in cotton production wouldn’t be any better. they will be ­ Quartz The bottom line is that while the rise of polyester is not good news for the planet.23/2/2016 If your clothes aren’t already made out of plastic. But as our galloping appetite for cheap clothes outruns our ability to grow cotton. They’ll be plastic.