What is Polyester?

Bridget McPhillips

What is polyester?

 

This is a question that was burning in my head after I saw the effects of Polyester and other man-made fibers when they came in contact with my son's skin.

Polyester is a man-made fabric.

Polyester is engineered to have all the best qualities of the old tried and true natural fibers, but with new found solutions to correct all of the problems that people had with the natural fibers.

 

Well not exactly, its just slightly more complicated than that.

 

I always thought polyester was "plastic."  You have probably all heard it referred to as an eco fabric, made from recycled water bottles.  I had to read and re-read the explanation of the process of making polyester to get my mind around what they were describing.  It is basically a chemical reaction.  Polyester means Poly: many and ester: basic organic compounds.  The very simplified process involves ethylene, originating from petroleum, to be combined in a reaction with dimethyl terephthalateterephe. The result of this process is then combined with terephthalic.  The result of this process is then made into the polyester fiber which is used to weave into fabric or is combined with other fibers to be woven into fabric.

Whew!

This is an extremely simplified version of the process.  The process of making polyester fibers was originally developed by a researcher working with a petroleum company in the 1950's.  Rayon was developed at the same time.  If you want to know more or better understand the process by all means Google it.  There is plenty of additional information and explanation of the science behind the creation of the fabric.  For the purpose of my post, I just wanted to introduce the idea that this fiber, which is either used on its own or combined with other fibers to make fabric is at it very basic elements, a petroleum based product and is the same material that is used to make the plastic bottles approved to hold beverages.

Fleece, a form of polyester was created when it was discovered that the polyester fibers could be combed with a hard metal comb.  The process of the combing causes  the loops formed in the weaving process to break open which creates the texture of the fleece.

When polyester was originally created, it was introduce as a cheap fabric alternative to the natural fiber fabrics.  The reality of this cheap alternative was that people felt it was not all that comfortable and it's popularity in the textile world did not take hold.  The polyester fabric was later re-introduced, not as "cheap," but as an "easy care" alternative.  It was presented as a fabric alternative that would wear well, not wrinkle or shrink and be easy to wash and dry.  As with most things, it's all about the presentation.  This new "easy" fabric was just what the busy population wanted and not much attention was given to what polyester actually was.

So this new fabric was introduced as the latest greatest answer to all of our textile needs.  Polyester has proven to be a strong fiber, but not stronger than natural fibers.  It is not more absorbent than natural fibers.  The polyester fiber itself will not absorb water or sweat, which makes the fiber less breathable in terms of the exchange of air and the removal of moisture from the environment.  The way the fiber is woven may allow for "breathability," but the fiber itself does not.  Polyester also does not absorb oil, so the good news is it will not stain.  On the whole, it is really not a better fiber and it does not make a better fabric.  It makes a fabric.  The fabric has its uses, but at what cost?

  

So here is where we need to pause and think.

 

There are those who will say this is the fabric for the future because it is good for the environment, removing huge amounts of plastic bottles out of land fills.

Although I completely agree that plastic bottles in our garbage and subsequently in our landfills are not biodegradable and are a pollution issue, the newly recycled form of these plastic bottles into fabric has created its own pollution issues that in my opinion are causing much greater harm to our environment than the bottles.

Polyester fabric, particularly polyester fleece fabric, actually sheds a great deal of micro plastic particles every time it is washed.  These micro plastic particles are then carried away in the water from the wash and are ending up in lakes, rivers and our shores.  You do not see these micro particles in the way you would see garbage sitting on the beach.  These micro particles are present and are causing some big problems in the ecosystems they are infecting. 

Patagonia, a major producer and retailer of fleece textiles, which often times are made using polyester fibers, has acknowledged this pollution issue and funded an independent study to measure the resultant effect of the micro plastic pollution in our water.  The results of that study can be found here: 

https://www.patagonia.com/blog/2016/06/what-do-we-know-about-tiny-plastic-fibers-in-the-ocean/

Since I started my research into this post, Patagonia has actually provided a second updated post on the Patagonia blog regarding the results of their study.  The second post can be found here:

https://www.patagonia.com/blog/2017/02/an-update-on-microfiber-pollution/

My objective in writing about this is not to say that polyester is bad and we should all stop buying and using it immediately.  I strongly believe that the perspective of each and every individual will be different on this and every other issue.  I hope to raise awareness to the problems that exist with the production and use of polyester and remind everyone that there are other choices.

All of our choices matter.

 

References:

www.madehow.com, Made How/ Volume 2/ Polyester by Kristine M. Krapp

www.qualitylogoproducts.com Blog Post, Nice Plastic Bottle You're Wearing: What You Never Knew About Recycled Fabric

www.whatispolyester.com

Patagonia blog

brenmicoplastics.weebly.com - Microfiber Pollution & the apparel industry Dr Patricia Holden, environmental microbiologist at Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California



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