Like cotton, polyester is one of the most ubiquitous materials known to man. Whether its clothing, home furnishings or car interiors, among countless other industrial applications — there is no escaping polyester at this point (quite literally) as it can take anywhere from 20 to 200 years to biodegrade. But in order to fully understand polyester’s impact, one has to take a closer look at how it's made.
In 1930, Dr. Wallace Carothers and his team at DuPont labs synthesised the very first polyester super polymer. Their fibres are formed from a chemical reaction between an acid and alcohol; where two or more molecules combine to make a large molecule whose structure repeats throughout its length. Thus, giving birth to polyester fibres that have the ability to form very long molecules that are extremely stable and strong. It was these functional attributes that gave way to polyester’s various applications across different industries.
Polyester is created from a chemical reaction involving coal, petroleum (from crude oil), air and water. A renown fossil fuel and non-renewable resource, petroleum extraction is extremely damaging to the environment. Using a method called hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’, oil extraction combines chemicals (often dangerous ones) with large amounts of water and sand at high rates of pressure to create rock formation. These operations release tons of harmful pollutants into the air and discharge dangerous chemicals into the ocean from shipping spills. Earlier this year, Mauritius suffered an environmental blow when a bulk carrier ran aground on a coral reef and started to leak oil, with nearly 4,000 tons of fuel oil and 200 tons of diesel on board.
Oil extraction takes a heavy toll, and producing plastic-based fibres like polyester uses an estimated 70 million barrels of oil every year. Furthermore, polyester has significant negative environmental impact during production.
Polyester is created through an energy-intensive process requiring 125 MJ of energy per kilogram produced. Those numbers, combined with the greenhouse gas emitted (14.2 kg of CO2 per kilogram) make it a high-impact process. Moreover, facilities that produce polyester without treating wastewater have a high probability of causing environmental damage through the release of heavy metals, and toxic chemicals.
The cumulative impact of both petroleum and polyester production processes have a detrimental effect on the environment. As consumers, our daily decisions and consumption habits can shape the future. Avoiding polyester clothing altogether and discarding it less frequently are just some of the small ways in which we can create a positive impact.
Read more about how big oil and petroleum industries have tricked us into thinking that plastics can be recycled right here;
Published by: Jharna pariani/ 2020-12-01