Panel 8: Fabrics

Materials that Linger: A Geographical Biography of Polyester Fabrics

Weaving Solutions to Microfibre Pollution: The Social Practices of Apparel Production, Consumption, Wearing, and Washing

Comments 7

  1. Although Patagonia have some excellent initiatives it should also be mentioned that they flatly refuse to publish the amount of polyester including recycled polyester annually.

  2. Hi Elyse and Chris. Thanks for a really engaging presentation. I was wondering whether polyester is recycled locally in Australia, if it isn’t where it goes to, and what old polyester clothes are recycled into? Can they be re-cycled into more clothes, or are they downcycled? Thanks

    1. Thank you Sy! That’s very kind – and wonderful to hear. We’ve been really confronted and intrigued researching polyester – and are looking forward to where it takes us next.

      To answer your question: Much like the transparency ‘gaps’ Peter and Lisa have discussed, there is not much known about how – and to what amounts – polyester fibre is recycled. From my reading, at least, because of the diversity of polyester (especially when mixed with other fibres) it seems like there currently isn’t a process for recycling polyester fibres into new clothing fibres that can be scaled up to deal with the amount of polyester clothing waste generated. There have been some recent breakthroughs from Deakin University (Melbourne) that have developed a way to separate cotton and polyester fibres. A few years ago it wouldn’t have been possible to recycle poly/cotton blend shirt. ‘Recycled polyester’ fibres in clothing usually refers to polyester fibres that have been produced from some amount of PET bottle (as seen in the Patagonia example). In the Australian context there are lots of examples of where other forms of plastic are recycled into polyester clothing fibres (from plastic bottles, ghost fish nets, ocean microplastics etc).

      My sense is that most polyester clothes are downcycled – into car or housing insulation, for instance – rather being made into new clothes. Some are sent offshore. Ones that can be sold on as clothes are – and the rest are broken down for reuse. I’ve read stories about how polyester is transforming the shoddy industry in India – as traditional machinery and skills (particularly the case with cotton/poly blends) struggle to process shoddy fibres in the same way. Then there are anecdotal examples of ‘polyester towns’ in the middle east and centra asia that are full of factories that are holding polyester clothes (taken in through recycling initaitves, for instance) until a more feasible recycling solution is made available at a large scale.

      I’d love to hear if Lisa has any insights on this too?

      1. Hi!

        Yes, I’d agree that most polyester recycling that occurs in Australia is downcycling – it is ragged or turned into carpet underlay, insulation, etc, as Elyse discussed. Overseas there are some groups that can recycle polyester fabric back into polyester fabric; as with all recycling, each time the fibre is recycled it loses some quality, but from my understanding it is insignificant.
        The biggest problem is the mixed-fibres that are becoming the norm in most clothing – even some sustainable fashion brands will make garments that are 97% organic cotton and 3% nylon/recycled PET or other to create a particular feel or performance. Until recycling technology catches up with material creation technology, all of that material is downcycled.

        Thanks for the important question,

  3. I really enjoyed listening to your paper Lisa. Your fashion practice complex diagram has really got me thinking! Super interesting to see all of those links drawn together. In your paper you spoke about fashion production, sustainable fashion and fashion use/consumption – but I was wondering if you had any reflections on the role of fashion media – specifically related to polyester and microfibre pollution?

  4. Thanks Elyse! I really enjoyed your beautiful paper, too.
    In my research I do reflect on the role of fashion media, particularly the very symbiotic relationship it has with fashion design, celebrity, Fashion Week, etc – and in a nutshell, the big players get the editorial space and define “fashion” at any given time because of their ability to pay for advertising and promotion.

    I haven’t spent too much time thinking about it in terms of this particular problem, however, my initial thinking is that it will be hard to get much fashion media attention because of their general reluctance to spend too much time on negative-fashion messaging. The strength of the current sustainable fashion movement, in my opinion, is that it has successfully navigated away from the negative, guilt-inducing messages (for the most part). This particular issue is so complex and does not yet have a good news angle. Also, it would likely not benefit the advertisers of fashion media (though many of those are luxury brands that I doubt are washed in our home machines, anyway). I don’t expect it to get much airtime anytime soon, but perhaps where there are more widely known and realistic solutions to offer people then at least it would be a good news story. But I’ll keep pondering, fab question.

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