The Polyester Predicament: Is it really *that* bad?

Polyester is one fabric that fuels textile sustainability debates as heated as those over politics at family dinners.

However, like many things, Polyester was once a celebration of significant technological advancement in the 1930s, a symbol of modernity – practical, versatile, low maintenance and high-performing. It was initially developed out of scientific research, and one of the biggest selling points was the fact that it could be worn for 68 days straight without ironing or care and still look fresh.

The talk around polyester isn’t just concerns over pollution; it’s a conversation that goes beyond its environmental impact. Today, consumers ask the tough questions—like, “Is this shirt ethically made?” or “Will it survive the next round of Marie Kondo’s decluttering spree?”

We’re embracing a new era of conscious consumption, where quality, origin, and sustainability reign supreme.

So, in this blog, we’re diving deep into the world of polyester—from its early days to now. Plus, we’ll chat about who should be responsible for recycling clothes and textiles in today’s world and where you can go to do just this!

Let’s start with a bit of background on our current textile cycle behaviours:

Firstly, ask yourself: “Will this piece of clothing last me the next few summers?”

To be frank, if it’s polyester, it likely will. That’s because it’s a durable fabric that is able to retain its shape for much longer than most. As a quick exercise, take a look in your closet. There’s a high chance a lot of your clothes are made of partially or even completely polyester. 

In a perfect world, polyester would be purchased for longevity, its ability to stand firm in our closets year after year. 

The issue, however, is that we often quickly jump on the latest fashion trend and out get tossed our polyester pair of leggings, swimsuit or puffer jacket (or even all three) for the sole reason of them being ‘so last year’. 

So, what are we currently doing with our clothes that we no longer want?

According to a report by online retailer, Reluv, more than 95% of Aussies donate their unwanted clothing. While that is a pretty mind-blowing stat, what are we all doing when our clothes are damaged, have some broken threads, or a hole in them? Those items are being thrown in…the…bin.

It’s a crazy thought, but one often justified by the lack of easily accessible options for recycling pre-loved fabrics. Could you name a company off the top of your head that offers textile recycling?

If we went on a journey to follow the life of the thrown-out pieces of clothing, we’d find that they end up in landfills – items made from polyester or nylon take up to 200 years to break down, and sitting in landfill means the opportunity to recycle them is lost.

Each Australian disposes an average 23 kilograms of clothing to landfill each year. Thats over 200,000 tonnes combined yearly.

At this point, you’re probably feeling slightly confused and maybe even asking yourself, “what’s the big issue with polyester?”

The plastic polyester problem

One major concern with polyester lies in its manufacturing process. Polyester is a synthetic fibre, meaning it’s made through chemical synthesis using polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a form of plastic.

To put it into perspective, approximately 342 million barrels of oil are consumed annually solely for producing plastic-based fibres. This reliance on fossil fuels makes polyester inherently unsustainable and environmentally harmful.

Being a plastic by-product, polyester takes anywhere between 20-200 years to breakdown. Polyester also releases tiny microplastics each time it is washed, which then get released through our washing machine drains and into the ocean. The fish consume these, and we consume the fish and ultimately end up with these microplastics back into our bodies.

So, we’ve made it pretty clear that polyester can put us in a bit of a pickle.

So, do we just avoid polyester altogether?

Many assume it’s easy to replace polyester with alternatives like cotton or nylon, however there are so many factors to consider – price, availability, suitability, performance, and not to mention that while natural, cotton has it’s own significant environmental impact too, as do many other alternative options. 

It takes a whopping 1,931 litres of water to produce enough cotton for a single t-shirt and pair of jeans. Plus, cotton requires many insecticides and pesticides, contributing to global warming and soil degradation. Choosing an organic cotton is a better option. Nylon, another synthetic option, is non-biodegradable and cannot be recycled, meaning polyester is still a better choice comparatively.

Avoiding polyester for the everyday consumer isn’t realistic; our favourite swimsuits, puffer jackets, shoe linings, activewear, outdoor upholstery, indoor upholstery and more all contain polyester or some sort of blend. You’d be surprised just how much polyester makes up your world – and the very reason you might love a garment you wear time and time again could be because of that polyester component.

With other environmental issues we have at hand, such as the overproduction and waste of plastic bottles, straws, bags and plastic in general – what if we only made polyester from recycled plastic?

Fabric for thought…What if we only made polyester from recycled plastic?

At Mereton, we’ve had many years in the textile industry, we’ve seen many a new, environmentally friendly, trendy fabric come through, but not really anything as durable and reliable as polyester. 

Is it possible to tackle two problems with one solution? Yes.

Recycled polyester is a sustainable option made from recycled bottles and everyday plastic items, giving new life to materials that would otherwise harm the environment. This circular approach helps reduce waste and minimise our ecological footprint. A win-win for everyone!

Not to mention, recycled polyester also reduces:

  • Energy use by 50%
  • Carbon emissions by 75%
  • Water consumption by 90%
  • Plastic waste by turning it into fibre

1 kg of recycled polyester saves 60 plastic bottles from landfills or oceans (projectcece)

What’s the catch with recycled polyester?

Polyester can only be recycled a few times before its quality declines, posing a challenge for its end-of-life disposal. This highlights the importance of being mindful of our fabric choices and considering how we’ll dispose of polyester items once we’re done with them.

Then, what are some other eco-friendly options?

When it comes to choosing eco-friendly fabric, organic options, recycled fabrics, and bamboo are top picks, grown without harmful pesticides. Plus, seaweed fabric and Tencel Lyocell are also making waves in the industry.

Above all, being conscious of what happens to our textiles after we’re done with them is the most eco-friendly thing we as consumers can be doing.

Now that we know all that, what’s the polyester solution?

With polyester’s popularity continuing to rise, the cycle goes on. But change starts with us— consumers, fashion houses, mills, and printers. 

It’s a collaborative effort as we all collectively grow more conscious about these things. For us personally here at Mereton, we are introducing more and more recycled polyester fabric options into our range and showing our clients the benefits and features. Polyester is still a necessity, and while not perfect, choosing the better option is a path forward to the best outcome for our planet.

So, next time you shop, think about the garment you’re buying – will it last you a considerably long time? Will it transcend seasons? And to our fashion houses, next time you create a collection, think about swapping out regular polyester for recycled polyester options in your range.

Don’t know where to start on your sustainable fashion journey? Here are some handy links:

Want to reduce the amount of microplastics being released into waterways from your washing machine? Try this washing bag:

For recycling old garments, even broken ones, check out these options:

For more recycling centres, check out

Want to browse our range of recycled polyester fabrics?

View our recycled polyester fabric range here