Why recycled polyester isn't a solution for sportswear

Many brands are trying to prove their sustainability with functional clothing made from or containing recycled polyester. Unfortunately, such textiles can do more harm than good.

To date, just 10% of the fabrics used in the fashion industry are made from recycled material. The reason is as simple as it is paradoxical: Recycled material, although it is actually recycled waste, is significantly more expensive than fresh fabric.

A lot would be achieved if we used recycled solutions for shoes or bags instead of conventional materials, especially those made of plastic. Not only that the energy requirement is significantly lower. In addition, we recycle raw materials that would otherwise end up in incinerators, landfills or, in the worst case, in nature.

But when it comes to textiles, caution is advised. Many brands have discovered recycled plastics such as polyester or nylon as a putatively sustainable alternative. Various functional clothing is now made entirely or partially from this plastic textile. In fact, clothing made from recycled plastics is almost as harmful as those made from fresh ones.

Although no (or less) petroleum has to be extracted, transported and processed, the products are still made of plastic. With each wash, thousands of microplastic particles smaller than 5 mm are released and therefore cannot be caught by conventional filters. They end up in our water system, in bodies of water around the world, in animals and thus also in us. According to a study by the WWF, the average person consumes 5g of plastic every week - about the weight of an entire credit card.

And since recycled plastics tend to be slightly less structurally stable than conventional ones (which is why polyester cannot be recycled indefinitely and therefore cannot be called circular), it is believed that an even greater amount of microplastics is emitted per m2 of fabric becomes.

Recycled polyester is therefore a sensible solution for products that never or only very rarely end up in the laundry - bags and shoes, for example, or hard elements such as buckles or zips. For textiles, we should rely on substances of botanical origin - such as hemp, sustainably sourced cotton or lyocell. Not only do they not shed any microplastics, they also dissolve again at the end of their life, leaving no waste behind.