Virgin polyester fabric is a popular choice of material for bags because it’s durable, moisture-resistant, elastic, and - most importantly - cheap.
But with all these advantages comes a dark side.
The manufacturing process for polyester has a huge negative impact on the environment. It wastes massive amounts of energy and is responsible for polluting wastewater with microplastics, chemicals, and other toxic materials.
Polyester is also not sustainable. The main components in the plastic fibers that make up this fabric come from petroleum, which is a nonrenewable resource.
Still, it can’t be denied that polyester makes a great fabric. But for companies like ours that are environmentally conscious, there’s an eco-friendly alternative that comes with all the same advantages of virgin polyester. It’s called RPET, or recycled polyester.
What Is RPET?
Recycled polyester (RPET) is a fabric made from recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is a type of plastic.
PET is a synthesis of ethylene glycol and dimethyl terephthalate, both of which are derived from petroleum. It’s the same material that virgin polyester fibers are made from, but the recycled version of the fabric draws its source of PET mostly from discarded clear plastic water bottles.
How Is RPET Made?
The process to make RPET begins with collecting sources of PET, which in this case is plastic water bottles.
- Step 1: PET bottles are collected and sterilized.
- Step 2: The bottles are dried out and crushed up into tiny, chip-sized pieces.
- Step 3: The pieces of PET are heated up and pushed through a spinneret to form long strands of yarn.
- Step 4: The PET yarn is wound onto spools and sent through a crimping machine. The crimping step is what gives the yarn a fluffy texture.
- Step 5: The PET yarn can then be baled, dyed to the desired color, and knitted into fabric.
Why Does RPET Exist?
Fabric manufacturers have been making RPET since the 1990s. It was meant to be part of an answer to the problem of what to do with the millions of tons of plastic waste sitting in American landfills.
In 1993, a fabric manufacturer called Polartec and an outdoor apparel company, Patagonia, worked together to develop a recycled polyester fleece that was made using plastic bottles. This was an unprecedented step toward increasing sustainability in fabrics.
Back then, recycled polyester was a newfangled notion. In the decades since technology has advanced to the point that RPET is more readily available and is even comparable to the virgin product in terms of quality and durability.
Since that first innovative step in 1993, Polartec has diverted around 1.5 billion plastic bottles from wasting away in landfills. But that’s just a drop in a sea of plastic refuse. According to EarthDay.org, Americans go through about 1.2 million plastic bottles per minute, and 91% of that plastic is not recycled. That adds up to billions of plastic bottles ending up in landfills every year.
Today, most fashion companies still don’t use recycled polyester to make bags or other accessories. Instead, they use virgin polyester, which contributes to the toxic linear economy model of taking more of a resource than necessary, making a product with it, and then sending that product to a landfill to waste away when there is no more use for it.
RPET VS Virgin Polyester
Is there any real difference between recycled polyester and virgin polyester? Let’s compare the materials, sustainability, and cost for both fabrics to find out where the most important distinctions lay.
For starters, virgin polyester is made directly from PET, not existing plastic objects like plastic bottles. It requires the PET to be made first, rather than collected from discarded waste.
When it comes to the end result, though, there isn’t a big difference between recycled polyester and the virgin kind. They are both essentially the same thing: fabric made of PET fibers woven together.
Another way that recycled polyester is different from the real deal is in its sustainability, from the manufacturing process to the end product. Recycling PET bottles into polyester consume far less energy and water than synthesizing PET. In fact, the process of manufacturing RPET is 33% to 53% less than manufacturing virgin polyester.
In addition, RPET can be recycled over and over into new items. This means that we wouldn’t have to actually produce any more virgin polyester. We can just continue recycling the same recycled polyester once it’s no longer being used, like an old bag or piece of clothing that you don’t want anymore.
The biggest obstacle standing in the way of this reality is the logistics of collecting, distributing and paying for RPET. It’s a massive undertaking that will require fashion companies to rethink and retool their infrastructure from the ground up.
At the end of the day, while RPET does leave a carbon footprint behind, it is significantly smaller than the impact that virgin polyester has on the environment. And it has the potential to be even more sustainable if companies are ever able to start implementing the technology to keep recycling RPET.
Where these two materials deviate from each other, aside from manufacturing process and sustainability, is cost. Currently, RPET is more expensive than polyester because the demand for it isn’t that high.
Eventually, though, as more companies prioritize sustainability and begin using recycled fabrics like RPET, the price of RPET is likely to balance out with virgin polyester and become more affordable.
Advantages Of Recycled Polyester
There are a lot of advantages to using RPET. Since it’s so similar to virgin polyester, it’s like it’s the same material in terms of the benefits it offers.
It is Durable
Recycled polyester fibers are strong and tightly interwoven, which makes RPET a durable bag fabric. It will hold up to a lot of wear and tear as you take it on your travels, run errands with it, carry schoolbooks or work supplies in it, or even take it hiking and backpacking.
It is Moisture Resistant
Moisture resistance is a key quality in a bag fabric. Just like virgin polyester, RPET wicks away moisture droplets from water or other liquids. It also doesn’t absorb liquid, meaning it dries quickly after getting wet. This makes it a perfect material for bags and backpacks that you take with you out in nature, as there is always a possibility you will get rained on or splashed with water from a puddle.
It is Elastic
By being elastic, recycled polyester holds its shape well and will not lose that shape or become wrinkly, even if it gets pulled on or bulges outward. A bag needs this quality so that it can contain bulky items and be carried around in all types of environments, while still keeping its original structure.
It is Heat Resistant
Recycled polyester is resistant to heat, meaning that it takes a lot of heat to get it to burst into flame.
It Holds Color
RPET holds color well, allowing fashion companies to use it to make clothing and accessories in a wide range of vibrant hues if they so choose.
It is More Sustainable
Recycled polyester is far more sustainable than virgin polyester.
Virgin polyester is made from substances that are derived from petroleum. Petroleum refineries cause a vast amount of pollution in our air, water, and soil. Meanwhile, the factories that synthesize PET and produce polyester are known to waste tons of energy while producing wastewater filled with toxins that they don’t treat.
Once a PET product is no longer needed or wanted by the consumer, it’s thrown into a landfill where it will leach toxins into the soil as it slowly decomposes over the course of centuries.
The life cycle of virgin polyester is grim. But recycling PET bottles into RPET fabric is one way to make the future look a little brighter.
By taking PET that already exists and turning it into a useful, polyester-like material through a less energy-intensive process, we can help eliminate the need for virgin polyester altogether. At the same time, we can put a stop to an environmentally hazardous manufacturing practice.
The fashion industry is a long way from switching to recycled polyester permanently, but it’s a goal to work toward. It starts with companies like ours that use RPET and other recycled materials in our bag collections.
For us, we’re not making a compromise when we use recycled polyester instead of virgin polyester. Instead, we’re winning. We’re using a material that is just as durable and high quality as the original, with a significantly smaller environmental impact and a sustainable life cycle.
Do you want to contribute to a more sustainable fashion industry? Check out our bags made of recycled polyester and recycled nylon.