Issues with using recycled polyester

31 03 2010

It looks like the plastic bottle is here to stay, despite publicity about bisphenol A  and other chemicals that may leach into liquids inside the bottle.   Plastic bottles (which had been used for some kind of consumer product) are the feedstock for what is known as “post consumer recycled polyester”.  Recycled polyester, also called rPET, is now accepted as a “sustainable” product in the textile market.   In textiles, most of what passes for “sustainable” claims by manufacturers have some sort of recycled polyester in the mix, because it’s a message that can be easily understood by consumers – and polyester is much cheaper than natural fibers.

The recycled market today has lots of unused capacity – as well as great potential for growth, because the recycling rates in many high consumption areas (like Europe and the USA) are low but growing.   In Europe, collection rates for bottles rose to 46% of all PET bottles on the market, while in the US the rate is 27%.   Factories are investing in technology and increasing their capacity – so the demand is huge.  According to Ecotextile News, beggars in China will literally stand watching people drink so that they can ask for the empty bottle.

As the size of the recycled polyester market grows, we think the integrity of the sustainability claims for polyesters will become increasingly important.  There has not been the same level of traceability for polyesters as there is for organically labelled products.  According to Ecotextile News, this is due (at least in part) to lack of import legislation for recycled goods.

When you buy a fabric that claims it’s made of 100% post consumer polyester – how do you know that the fibers are 100% post consumer?  Is there a certification which assures us that the fibers really are what the manufacturer says they are?  And it’s widely touted that recycling polyester uses just 30 – 50% the energy needed to make virgin polyester – but is that true in every case?  And what about water use – it’s widely thought that water use needed to recycle polyester is low, but who’s looking to see that this is true?

Recycled post consumer polyester is made from bottles – which have been collected, sorted by hand, and then melted down and formed into chips (sometimes called flakes).  These chips or flakes are then sent to the yarn spinning mills, where they’re melted down and (if not used at 100% rates) mixed with virgin polyester.   A fabric made of “recycled polyester” has a designated percentage of those chips in the polymer.  The technology has gotten so sophisticated that it’s now difficult to verify if something is really recycled.

First, let’s look at how the recycled polyester is used in textiles, beyond the issue of whether the recycled PET yarns actually ARE spun from recycled feedstock,  because there are several issues with using recycled PET which are unique to the textile industry:

  • The base color of the recyled chips varies from white to creamy yellow.  This makes it difficult to get consistent dyelots, especially for pale shades.
  • In order to get a consistently white base, some dyers use chlorine-based bleaches.
  • Dye uptake can be inconsistent, so the dyer would need to re-dye the batch.  There are high levels of redyeing, leading to increased energy use.
  • PVC is often used in PET labels and wrappers and adhesives.  If the wrappers and labels from the bottles used in the post consumer chips had not been properly removed and washed, PVC may be introduced into the polymer.
  • Some fabrics are forgiving in terms of appearance and lend themselves to variability in yarns,  such as fleece and carpets; fine gauge plain fabrics are much more difficult to achieve.

And of course, the chemicals used to dye the polymers as well as the processing methods used during weaving of the fabric may – or may not – be optimized to be environmentally benign.  Water used during weaving of the fabric may – or may not –  be treated.  And the workers may – or may not – be paid a fair wage.

One solution, suggested by Ecotextile News, is to create a tracking system that follows the raw material through to the final product.  This would be very labor intensive and would require a lot of monitoring (all of which adds to the cost of production – and don’t forget, recycled polyester now is fashion’s darling because it’s so cheap!).  There are also private standards which have begun to pop up, in an effort to differentiate their brands.  One fiber supplier which has gone the private standard route is Unifi.   Repreve is the name of Unifi’s recycled polyester – the company produces recycled polyester yarns, and (at least for the filament yarns) they have Scientific Certification Systems certify that Repreve yarns are made with 100% recycled content.  Unifi’s  “fiberprint” technology audits orders across the supply chain  to verify that if Repreve is in a product it’s present in the right amounts.  But there are still  many unanswered questions (because they’re  considered “proprietary information” by Unifi)  so the process is not transparent.

But now there is a new, third party certification which is addressing these issues.  The Global Recycle Standard, issued by Control Union, is intended to establish independently verified claims as to the amount of recycled content in a yarn.  In addition to the certification of the recycled content, this new standard holds the weaver to similar standards as found in the Global Organic Textile Standard:

  • companies must keep full records of the use of chemicals, energy, water consumption and waste water treatment including the disposal of sludge
  • all wastewater must be treated for pH, temperature, COD and BOD before disposal;
  • there is an extensive section related to worker’s health and safety.

In the end, polyester – whether recycled or virgin – is plastic.

I came across the work of a photographer living in Seattle, Chris Jordan, who published photographs of albatross chicks which he made in September, 2009, on Midway Atoll, a tiny stretch of sand and coral near the middle of the North Pacific.   As he says, “The nesting babies are fed bellies-full of plastic by their parents, who soar out over the vast polluted ocean collecting what looks to them like food to bring back to their young. On this diet of human trash, every year tens of thousands of albatross chicks die on Midway from starvation, toxicity, and choking.

To document this phenomenon as faithfully as possible, not a single piece of plastic in any of these photographs was moved, placed, manipulated, arranged, or altered in any way. These images depict the actual stomach contents of baby birds in one of the world’s most remote marine sanctuaries, more than 2000 miles from the nearest continent.”  See more at Chris Jordan’s website here.

To make thing worse, these tiny pieces of plastic are extremely powerful chemical accumulators for organic persistent pollutants present in ambient sea water such as DDE’s and PCB’s. The whole food chain,  from invertebrates to fish, turtles and mammals … are eating plastic and /or other animals who have plastic in them.

If you’re shocked by this picture, remember that this was brought to our attention years ago by National Geographic Magazine and in reports by scientists from many organizations.  One of the things they warned us of is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which has doubled in size while we have done nothing.  I am shocked that we have done nothing while the cascading effects of our disposable society continue to accumulate.

Dyes – synthetic and “natural” part 2

8 09 2009

After last week’s discussion, I think you understand why it’s important to remember that whether one uses natural or synthetic dyes a major concern is not only what type of dye the dyer uses, but whether the dyer has water treatment in place!    That’s because neither natural dyes nor synthetic dyes (plus the associated mordants, etc., used in the dyeing process) should ever be returned to the local waterways.  Even benign chemicals like potato starch will kill fish and other aquatic life because they encourage the growth of algae which depletes all available oxygen, among other issues (known as BOD or Biological Oxygen Demand).  And some so called “natural” dyes are themselves toxic.  So be sure to buy fabric from a supplier who has water treatment in place.

The other part of the equation is how the dye is formulated, because if toxic chemicals are used in the formulation then most of these chemicals remain in the fabric.  If synthetic chemical dyestuffs contain chemicals which can poison us, then the use of natural dyes seems to many people to be a safer alternative.  Additionally, the  question of natural dyes remains a romantic notion and is aesthetically pleasing to many people.  So what are natural dyes?


Natural dyes are dyes derived from animal or plant material without any synthetic chemical treatment. They are obtained from sources like flowers, leaves, insects, bark roots and even minerals. The most common natural dyes (all from plants except cochineal, from an insect) are:

  • Madder
  • Cutch
  • Cochineal
  • Weld
  • Indigo

Contrary to popular opinion, natural dyes are  neither necessarily safer nor more ecologically sound than synthetic dyes:

1)      “Natural” does not mean safe – they are not synonyms.  Mushrooms can be poisonous. Arsenic is perfectly “natural,” meaning occurring naturally in nature.  Some natural dyes are almost perfectly safe; others are quite toxic. Some synthetic dyes are safe even to eat; others are too toxic to bring into your home.  A few  natural dyes, such as logwood, which contains hematein and hematoxlyn, are themselves significantly poisonous – they’re toxic whether inhaled, absored through the skin or ingested.  Indigo is a skin, eye and respiratory system irritant.  Proper health and safety equipment must be supplied when working with any dyestuffs and workers need to be trained properly so they treat the dyes and mordants with respect.

2)       Just because dyes are natural does not mean that they are sustainably or organically raised or harvested.   Pesticides, herbicides, defoliants, etc., may have been used on the crop or perhaps the crop itself may be genetically modified or irrigated unsustainably.   Extraction of madder is often done by dissolving the roots in sulphuric acid.  Sodium hydroxide is needed to produce natural indigo dye.[1]

3)      The physical amount of natural dyestuff needed to color fabric is much greater than that required by synthetic dyestuffs.  The amounts needed vary by dyestuff used and fiber type, but as an example, we have summarized the usage from an article in the Clothing and Textiles Research Journal[2]:

To dye 2 yards of upholstery weight fabric:


synthetic dye


freshly picked leaves

160 – 320

To dye 2 lbs of wool using:


low range

high range

Brazilwood chips









To dye 5,000 yards of cotton fabric per month:


low range

high range

synthetic dyestuff






freshly picked leaves



4)      The quantity of dyestuff required is not a trivial consideration as the quantity of natural dyes that would be required to fulfill commercial dye demand would overwhelm  resources.  Some dyestuffs come from forest products, depleting valuable natural resources. Some can be wild harvested, but the population of creatures or plants required to fill human dye demand could not be supplied from current stocks of plants or animals.  (The third class of natural dyes, minerals, are most likely less objectionable in this regard.)  According to Ecotextile News (April 2009), it has been calculated that even if 2/3 of the world’s agricultural land was used to grow only natural dyes, there would scarcely be enough produced to dye the current volume of textiles.

5)    Natural dyes normally require much greater energy in the dyeing process as they usually require high temperature baths for longer periods of time than the optimized synthetic dyes; they also require a copious amount of the dyestuff itself as mentioned above,  and water.

6)      Natural dyes are less permanent, often requiring the use of mordants to affix the color molecule to the fiber.     Dye can sit on top of the fabric and look fine at first, but it easily washes out or fades to light very quickly.  The mordant creates a link between the dyestuff and the fiber – it remains in the fiber permanently, holding the dye.   That’s why cottons from India (where they had discovered mordants)  in the 18th century became so popular.  The mordant allows a dye to attain acceptable wash fastness. Some natural mordants exist, like pomegranate, salt and alum, but the more effective mordants are heavy metals (lead, mercury, copper, et al), which have unsavory toxicity profiles (see last week’s post).  Each different metal used as a mordant produces a different range of colors for each dye.

7)      A primary consideration in textile manufacture is that the color possibilities for natural dyes are far more limited than synthetics.   The color of any natural dye may be easily copied by mixing synthetic dyes, but the reverse is not true:  many colors are not easily obtained with natural dyes. The non-reproduction of some shades is a drawback in commercial production. The variability of the color makes the use of natural dyes difficult in any manufacturing situation where replicability of color is important.

The use of natural dyes will almost certainly make the fabric more expensive, firstly, because large quantities of land and raw material are required to obtain the same depth of color that could be obtained from a synthetic dye – although the amount of energy needed to extract oil from the ground and convert it into useable chemicals for synthetic dyestuff is probably very high, although I have not seen studies regarding this.   Also, both growing and applying the dyes are time-consuming –  natural dyes take typically at least twice as long as synthetic dyes to get a result, and using natural dyes on vegetable fabric will be more costly still, as vegetable fibers are more resistant to taking up good strong colors than animal fibers are, and slower, longer treatments often give better results.  So the question becomes one of social responsibility also – is it responsible to use land to produce ultra low yield dye crops for the benefit of those wealthy enough to afford them?

And then there’s the problem of availability: with perhaps the exception of indigo, the most common dyeing crop, crops grown for are dye are almost non-existent. A manufacturer would have extreme difficulty making vast improvements to the environmental impacts of their dyeing processes because the supply, and the infrastructure to apply it, doesn’t exist on an industrial scale.

And yet …  many people appreciate the slight variations caused by natural human methods and feel that it adds to the beauty and interest of a fabric.  The art becomes more important than the science.   They believe that there is a richness and depth to some of these natural dyes that a synthetic just cannot match.   A company at the forefront of using vegetable dyes is Rubia Pigmenta Naturalia .   They produce a dyestuff made entirely from the madder plant, which is able to cover 40% of the color spectrum.  They have completed a long term research program to increase efficienty, yield and handling of natural colors on wool;  the dye is exceptionally stable, homogenous, colorfast and grown and processed to organic standards.  In 2008, Rubia Pigmenta Naturalia was approved for use in Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) fabrics.

Another source of information is Natural Dyes International, which is a nonprofit organization  to research  natural dyes,  share information and eduate the public about the history of these dyestuffs.

Researchers at the University of Leeds are investigating new technologies using both natural and synthetic materials that may revolutionize the dyeing of textiles.  The first, a process that creates colored polymers inside fibers via a catalytic dye process,  has the potential to reduce the dependence on petroleum as a starting point for synthetic dyes, be more cost effective and lower environmental impacts.  The second is a natural/synthetic hybrid using a gene modification.  As Ecotextile News says,  “Nature alone can’t meet the technical or volume demands of the modern consumer, and petroleum technology isn’t sustainable.”  (But a genetically modified dyestuff?  Yet another blog posting, due in a few weeks.)

Having weighted all the options and looked at costs and prices, we decided that a fully optimized GOTS compliant synthetic dyestuff, applied in a facility that follows the GOTS water treatment standards, is the best choice for O Ecotextiles fabrics at this point in time.  We are always hoping that the industry will develop better choices as time goes by, because as mentioned in the previous posts, the GOTS and Oeko Tex requirements do not prohibit the chemicals that are so egregious in terms of toxicity, they just establish threshhold limits for these chemicals.  Again, the Europeans are at the forefront, with their REACH legislation which mandates finding replacements for up to 2000 of the worst chemical offenders by a certain date.  We’ll all benefit from their strong and forward-thinking leadership.


[2] Chen and Burns, “Environmental Analysis of Textile Products”, Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, 2006; 24; 248.