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What Does a Ketchup Bottle & a Polyester Shirt Have in Common?

Updated: Dec 9, 2019

Does the thought of wearing a plastic T-shirt or sweater sound crazy? Well, you probably already wear something made from plastic if you own any clothes made out of polyester.

Polyester is a type of plastic polymer, which is a long chain of repeating molecular units. One of the most common polymers is polyethylene terephthalate or PET for short. It’s made from a combination of acid and alcohol. Variations of PET are used in all sorts of applications; ketchup, soda and water bottles being some of them, and your polyester shirt or pants being another.

Your shirt starts out as granules of polyester which are melted and squeezed through small holes. The resulting filaments are then spun and stretched into a fiber that can be used to make clothing.

The very first piece of polyester clothing went on sale in 1951. In the following years, polyester was not known for its comfort or its aesthetic appeal—think ugly leisure suits in disco clubs. Its popularity was instead owed to its inexpensive nature. Today, polyester clothes have become more common and affordable. The lightweight synthetic fiber is also resistant to wrinkling and shrinking, something cotton is notorious for. Polyester has come a long way from the time when it was invented. Improvements have been made to the production which, in turn, has led to its look and feel blending right in with other fabrics.

That’s not to say all is great about polyester. There are environmental downsides. Polyester comes from petroleum and requires a lot of energy to produce. Both energy inputs and greenhouse gas emissions in polyester production are high. However, if factories use end-of-pipe wastewater treatment, then many of the chemicals used in production are not released to the environment. From a wearability standpoint, it may not wrinkle, but polyester is not a material that lets your skin breathe since plastic is not porous.

On the other hand, cotton is not entirely environmentally-friendly either. Its production requires a massive amount of water and labor. Still, at its core, cotton is a natural fiber which is technically biodegradable. Unfortunately, the problem is that cotton clothes are often just thrown away and end up in a landfill where they are not composted, so they can’t biodegrade.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy environmentally-conscious choice to clothing fabric. Whether it’s cotton or polyester or some other fabric, the more clothing the world demands, the heavier pressure there is on limited resources.

In the end, it’s important to come back to the idea of reusing, recycling and living a more minimalistic lifestyle. And when there is a new shirt that you just have to have, donate a few shirts you don’t wear anymore to a local second-hand shop or non-profit. On a national level, USAgain accepts clothes, shoes and household textiles that are ready to be re-worn, reused or recycled and resells them in the U.S. and abroad. You can find drop-box locations on their website:

Retailers like Target, Levi’s, H&M and The North Face team up with clothing recycling companies and offer coupons to customers who bring in used clothing to be recycled. Goodwill takes clothing that doesn’t sell to their customers and sells it to salvage brokers or makes it into industrial wipes. Overall, the textile recycling industry keeps 3.8 billion pounds of textile waste out of the landfill each year.

As for the Brown County Resource Recovery Department, while we don’t accept clothing, we do accept all plastic bottles, cups and containers, so that the plastic can be melted and reused. It might even end up in your new shirt or pants!

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