Why we stitch with recycled polyester

When producing our prototypes in February 2019, our Cambodian workshops (Fairsew and Pour Un Sourire d'Enfant) used their standard polyester sewing yarn. Polyester is the most commonly used yarn, as it is strong and offers an impressive choice of colours at a low cost.

Because we wanted to avoid polyester, we looked at many alternatives. With the help of Anneliese from Fairsew, we opted for recycled polyester.

What are the alternatives to polyester sewing yarn? Cotton is one of the alternatives to (virgin) polyester sewing yarn, but it often lacks resistance. Therefore, for our first collection, we have chosen A&E’s recycled polyester sewing yarn, made from recycled plastic water bottles. Which is pretty cool, we think. That said, we keep our eyes open for new and innovative alternatives.

Do I sense some skepticism? If you think that sewing threads are mostly invisible and represent only a very small part of the final garment, you are right. Also, by using recycled polyester, we don’t really eliminate it, we just extend its life cycle and slow down the demand for virgin polyester.   

What is the big deal? And why are we dedicating a blog post to our sewing yarn? Read on and you will find out. 😉

What’s polyester?

Polyester is a synthetic polymer and appears in various formats, ranging from textiles to plastic bottles. It is a kind of plastic and it takes about 1.5 kg of petroleum to make 1 kg of polyester.

Of all synthetic fibres out there, 80% is polyester and represents 50% of all fibers produced in the world! So polyester is everywhere: in carpets, furniture, cars, but most of it ends up in clothing. The fashion industry produces 8,323 kg of polyester every second, or around 240 million tonnes per year. That is quite a lot in comparison to the cotton production that amounts to 27 million tonnes per year.

Also worth noting is that polyester has a huge negative environmental impact during its water-intensive and toxic manufacturing process that releases harmful fumes and pollutes rivers and oceans. 

What took scientists a long time to figure out is that the most harmful impact of polyester goes through the way we care for our clothing. Every time we wash synthetic garments, our washing machines release around 2000 pieces of microplastics in the sewage. The particles are so small that they cannot be filtered out by sewage treatment plants, so they continue their journey into rivers and oceans. They pollute water in an invisible way! 

Polyester and acrylic microparticles do not end their "life" floating forever in the salt water of our seas, but pass through underwater organisms and get eaten by fish, algae and seafood. It’s hard for them to avoid these microplastics, as they are EVERYWHERE. 

So eventually, polyester ends up in our food chain and into our bodies.

Think about the 240 million tonnes of polyester that is produced every year. And about the fact that all polyester that has ever been produced, is still around. Only a small part gets recycled - such as our sewing yarn. Lots of it gets thrown “away”, and much of it breaks down and gets transported through wastewater networks to the oceans, threatening the entire marine ecosystem and creating waste continents. Scary, isn’t it?

Recycled polyester is also called rPET. How does it work ?

The production of recycled polyester begins with trucks loaded with plastic bottles. Only transparent bottles are used, as to make it easier to add colour to the yarn at a later stage. The bottles are stripped of their labels and shredded into tiny pieces that look like plastic confetti. If you think that sounds like a party, you are right: the recycling of single-use plastics considerably reduces greenhouse gas emissions compared to the production of virgin polyester. Water consumption is also significantly reduced during production. The plastic confetti then gets shredded into tiny granules, melted, and spun into yarn.

Why is recycled polyester a sustainable alternative?

First of all, recycled polyester gives a second life to plastic that would otherwise go straight into landfill or our oceans. Secondly, rPET requires a lot less resources than virgin polyester even though they are almost identical in terms of quality. Production of recycled polyester requires 59 percent less energy and emits 32 percent less CO2, and slows down the demand for oil and natural gas that is needed to produce ordinary polyester.

However, there is room for improvement as recycling has its limits. Many garments are made of a mixture of polyester and other materials, which make them hard to recycle.

And let's not forget that just like virgin polyester, recycled polyester releases microplastics in the washing machine. Time to use your guppyfriend bag!

We are proud to have found an alternative to virgin polyester and reduce the consumption of plastic and polyester. 

And yes, the cost of a spool of recycled polyester yarn is ten times more expensive than virgin polyester, but we are convinced that it is worth it. What about you?

What can YOU do?

  1. Avoid buying polyester clothing. 
  2. Opt for recycled polyester in raincoats or athletic wear. That way, you slow down the demand for virgin polyester.
  3. If you own (recycled) polyester clothing, use a guppyfriend bag in the washing machine; it recovers microplastics and stops their journey towards our oceans. Important: don’t ever wash your guppyfriend bag, as that would just release the microplastics into the wastewater.