The Down Low on Recycled Polyester
PROS: 59 - 75% less energy is needed to produce rPET compared to virgin PET (depending on your source) - YAY.
90% less water is used in the manufacturing of rPET vs. PET - YAY.
rPET reduces our dependence on virgin oil as a raw material - YAY.
Some plastics are kept out of landfills and also reduces emissions caused by plastics incineration - YAY.
Demand for rPET textiles has helped drive the PET recycling supply chain - YAY.
CONS: once PET is recycled into a textile, it's no longer easily recyclable - BOO.
Washable goods made out of rPET inevitably contribute to our growing microplastics problem - BOO.
Polyester, or polyethylene terephthalate (PET), is essentially processed natural gas or crude oil. PET chips are spun into fibers that are eventually turned into fabrics. rPET is made much the same way, with the exception that instead of crude oil as raw material, recycled PET containers are used.
The trouble with plastic is that because of its structure, and the most common recycling process (mechanical recycling), it is lmost always downcycled - meaning, it loses its integrity over time and unlike a material like aluminum, has limitations on how it can be recycled a second time.
Let us explain. The two types of recycling processes are:
Mechanical Recycling: taking PET containers (usually water bottles), melting, forming, chipping, and finally spinning the material into rPET fibers.
Chemical Recycling: breaking polyester down into its original monomers, creating a material that is indistinguishable from virgin polyester and would therefor be infinitely recyclable.
Mechanical recycling is much easier and is the default PET recycling process. Though the barriers to entry are lower for recycling facilities, mechanical recycling creates an eventual dead end in the recycling stream. There is great potential for chemical recycling technologies to close the loop and allow for rPET garments and accessories to be recycled into themselves in the future, but for now, the system we have is far from perfect.
To compound the issue, a paltry 9% of plastics consumed in the United States were actually recycled according to a 2018 EPA report. Due to poor recycling infrastructure, poor consumer education, a major
single use plastics problem, and the fact that most durable plastic can't be recycled, our plastics recycling system certainly isn't the crowning achievement of the 21st century.
rPET may not be a perfect solution, but it's progress. We're excited to continue developing our products in line with advances in textile innovations, hoping to close the loop and create a circular product lifecycle someday. Until then, however, rPET is a better for the earth alternative and we believe our best option for now.