February 16, 2023

The Impact of Polyester: A Growing Source of Microfiber Pollution

Back News

The use of polyester has become increasingly popular in the fashion industry (exceeding 55 million tons per year of production), with some estimates projecting that 70% of all apparel sold will contain some form of synthetic material by 2020. Unfortunately, this surge in popularity has also come with a hidden cost to our environment, microfiber pollution.


Microfiber Pollution from Polyester


Microfibers are formed when synthetic materials such as polyester are washed and torn into tiny pieces. These fibers are so small that they cannot be seen by the naked eye and are often released into bodies of water, air, and soil during laundering. These tiny fibers can then end up in our marine ecosystems, where they can be ingested by marine life like plankton (lungs of oceans!). Plankton, as well as other species such as mussels and shrimps, filter huge volumes of water through their bodies every day. In doing so, they often ingest these small pieces of microfiber which can lead to negative health effects. Over time, these microfibers can accumulate and contaminate food sources for marine life and human consumption, leading to untold damage to local ecosystems. In addition to direct environmental contamination, microfibers also hugely impact greenhouse gas emissions.


Fortunately, we can mitigate the environmental damage caused by polyester microfibers. For example, washing machines equipped with filters can help prevent many fibers from entering bodies of water. Choosing clothes made from natural fibers such as cotton or wool instead of polyester is another excellent way to reduce our reliance on plastic-based materials. Additionally, looking for certified ‘labels on clothes will ensure your garment is ethically produced and free from any controversial chemicals or pollutants that can further harm the environment.


Thanks to Conservation X Labs and their Microfiber Innovation Challenge, the world is one step closer to overcoming the microfiber pollution crisis. The Flotilla Foundation and Arthur Vining Davis Foundations sponsored this event in which teams submitted new materials that could limit textile-related pollution. The Tandem Repeat Technologies emerged with Squitex, one of the five victors, a sustainable fiber material they developed — making them the proud winners of the innovation challenge!


High Energy Demand for Polyester


Polyester is an artificial man-made fiber created in a laboratory by polymerizing two key components, terephthalic acid, and mono-ethylene glycol. Combining these two chemicals at 400 degrees Celsius creates a long repeating chain of molecules forming a chemical bond, making the polyester strong, durable, and lightweight. Polyester production requires energy input and hazardous chemical substances such as sulfuric acid, sodium hydroxide, and ethylene oxide. These chemicals can cause environmental pollution when not managed properly. Also, the waste generated from the production process needs to be disposed of off responsibly to avoid harming the environment further.


The production of polyester is an energy-intensive process that has a significant impact on the environment. The high energy demand for polyester production results in increased greenhouse gas emissions, air and water pollution, and more waste being generated. Additionally, the use of hazardous chemicals used in polyester production can have long-term health risks for workers and those living close to manufacturing facilities.


Polyester provides us with many benefits — primarily its durability and affordability, but it’s essential not to overlook its dark side: microfiber pollution, high energy use, and carbon emissions. By being conscious about how we source our clothing and adequately disposing of them at the end of its life cycles, we can do our part to minimize any potential impact it might have on the environment.

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