No material is so hotly debated–the recycling of PET bottles is criticized as greenwashing.
For Rüdiger Fox, CEO, Sympatex, getting wet is currently the only real alternative to polyester. "Plastic is an awesome stuff, as long as it doesn't end up in the food chain. Or into the ocean," Fox said. And while he explains that he is a realist and not a dreamer, that there is simply no comparable fiber that has these functions, a press release from Icebreaker comes in. The New Zealand outdoor specialist announces a merino wool softshell combination with a PFC-free and durable water repellent coating. However, with a manufacturer suggested price of €649.95 not really suitable for the mass market.
Opinions differ widely
For some, it is currently the most versatile, cheapest and most functional material. For others, it remains an environmentally harmful plastic that will eventually become waste. Not to mention the microplastic problem - which is, however, controversial and has not yet been researched in detail. Consumers are warned by online initiatives such as the educational website Netzfrauen about "the dangers of this sustainable fashion". There is talk of "health damage from estrogen-releasing toxins in fleece pajamas made from recycled polyester."
Even the production process is an environmental sin. The extraction of synthetic fabrics is undoubtedly an energy-intensive process that requires a lot of crude oil and releases emissions. "Among them, there are volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and acid gases such as hydrogen chloride, which cause respiratory diseases. Monomers, solvents and other byproducts of polyester production are emitted into wastewater from manufacturing facilities," explains the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This means textile manufacturing facilities are once again "generators of hazardous waste," according to the Environmental Health Perspectives platform.
The debate is so loud and so controversial not only because polyester is the most widely used synthetic fiber, but because many major manufacturers are taking the first steps toward sustainability with recycled polyester. Some - like Ecoalf - have built their entire business model on it.
Textile recycling is still in its infancy
The figures are very fresh: the Amsterdam-based sustainability initiative Fashion for Good has analyzed 21.8 tons of textile waste in six European countries, including Germany, as part of the "Sorting for Circularity Europe" project. According to the study, one in ten items consists of polyester and almost a third of material blends, of which the cotton-polyester blend, which still cannot be separated in large quantities to cover costs, accounts for half.
Blends like these are only one disruptive factor. The main problem is that there is still no fiber-to-fiber recycling. Recycled polyester would only be truly sustainable if it came from old textiles. And not, as is the case today, almost exclusively from plastic bottles. Because the infrastructure and take-back systems for old clothes don't even exist yet, confirms Thomas Ahlmann of Fairwertung, the umbrella organization of textile recyclers. And because new recovery is still more profitable than recycling, he says. "The marketing of many large retailers and manufacturers suggests that we are on the verge of a circular economy. But that is far from the case. The status quo is that the players are talking to each other. The percentage of fiber-to-fiber recycling is still less than 1%,” he said.
"Anyone who already sells a recycled polyester as a sustainable solution is misleading their customers," finds Ahlmann. Lavinia Muth is even more explicit: "This is simply greenwashing," says the sustainability expert, who was CSR manager at Armedangels for four years and founded her own consultancy in Cologne ten months ago. "It's trending right now because it can be easily and cheaply labeled as supposedly green. What's clear is that PET bottles are best left in their closed loop as PET bottles.”
"There is no black and white"
Then there are the rumors that have been circulating for years: Meanwhile, plastic bottles would be especially manufactured in China so that they could be recycled into textile fibers. Yet there would already be enough plastic in the world for all future collections. "Raw material doesn't really need to be produced anymore. I believe that the EU's draft legislation, with its compulsion to use recyclable materials, is heading in that direction. We just need a sensible collection system," confirms polyester’s fan Fox. "If only because the fiber is extracted from fossil raw materials, it would of course be good to get away from virgin extraction altogether at some point," Hilke Patzwall also said. She has worked as a sustainability manager at Vaude for 16 years and, as a fair fashion pioneer herself, is torn on the subject of polyester. "There is no black and white here, as so often in sustainability. It's a highly dynamic complex subject area.”
That's why Vaude, just like Sympatex, is involved in many research projects for a better polyester. Ellen Bendt, a professor at the Niederrhein University of Applied Sciences focusing on knitwear and innovative product design, is working on biobased base materials. A pilot using corn instead of petroleum is currently the most promising, she says. As she hurries across the campus in Mönchengladbach to the next lecture, she dispels the myth of infinitely recyclable polyester: "Every processing step costs molecule length. This means that the raw material continuously loses quality," explains Bendt. This is true at least for traditional mechanical recycling.
How exactly the fiber behaves and how often it can be recycled is being researched by organizations such as Accelerating Circularity Europe. Right now, the first testing phase for post-consumer and post-industrial polyester textiles as sources of mechanically and chemically recycled virgin fibers is underway in their labs under the direction of Petra Schweiger, who formerly developed products for O'Neill, Tom Tailor and Esprit. The working group includes representatives from Amazon, Jack Wolfskin, Sympatex, Vaude and Zalando, she says.
"Our mission is to implement commercial systems in which textile waste is reused as new raw materials." Schweiger is pleased that interest from manufacturers has been growing since Corona. "Also because customers, consumer associations and politicians are finally taking a closer look and producers can no longer simply promise the moon. They expect truly sustainable solutions." Especially when it comes to the sensitive issue of man-made fibers.
The micro plastic problem
Speaking about microplastics the problem is not just in production, but probably more so in wear and washing. Fox first heard about the abrasion problem at a conference four and a half years ago. "Since then, we've been researching it, finding that certain weaving techniques and coatings reduce the danger." As long as it's not fleece, he says, abrasion is limited. Patzwall of Vaude confirms that. A backpack that is not washed and worn directly on the skin is less of a concern than a shirt. But the facts are still too thin overall, he says. Experiments are being conducted with nets and filters for washing machines. At present, however, even the sustain expert from Vaude does not yet see a truly satisfactory solution. Especially when it comes to function.
But Muth, for example, questions how much function is actually always necessary. "Why do we have to dress today for a two-hour walk as if we wanted to climb Mount Everest?" Her former employer Armedangels, of course, has an easier time of it and, like Hess Natur, tries to largely avoid the controversial fiber. As do many other outerwear manufacturers. Conventional suppliers such as Gerry Weber, Tom Tailor and Co are also working flat out to find a replacement.
Far ahead is Hugo Boss. The Metzingen-based company bought into HeiQ AeoniQ LLC for US$5 million in February. The Swiss start-up has developed an algae-based continuous filament yarn made from cellulose that is expected to replace man-made fibers in the medium term. "In our estimation, this product is the most convincing in terms of its versatility, quality and recyclability, and we believe it can provide a sustainable solution to the polyester problem in the long term," explains CSR manager Andreas Streubig. He has already steadily reduced the share of polyester in the overall product range to 14% in the meantime. "In the long term, we want to replace this fiber completely, because we see the resource-intensive raw material extraction and, of course, the microplastic and residual waste problem."
This article was published by textilwirtschaft.de on 13 October 2022