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Recycled Polyester, from "Cheat Sheet"
By Shane Dale
February, 2010

Q: What is recycled polyester? What kinds of garments can you make from it? What about embellishments? Which industries like recycled polyester? Just how eco-friendly is recycled polyester?

A: Dale Denkensohn, president of econscious (asi/51656), explains that recycled polyester is polyester that is made from pre- and post-consumer polyester scrap, including discarded water and soda bottles. "After the polyester products have been collected, they are shredded into small pieces, melted and made into new recycled polyester fiber," he says. "This fiber is identical to conventional fiber."

Recycled polyester has come a long way in the last few years, according to Stefan Bergill, national accounts sales manager for econscious. "If you had asked me five years ago about things that you can not do, I would have said some of the finer, smallest yarn products were not possible with recycled polyester, but nowadays this is no longer the case," he says. "You can get recycled polyester for just about any yarn size and application."

SanSegal Sportswear (asi/84867) uses nothing but 100% recycled products for its apparel, including polyester from recycled soda bottles. The company blends its recycled polyester with cotton fibers that are obtained from cutting-room scraps that, like the bottles, would have otherwise ended up in a landfill.

"The reason we blend cotton with the polyester is that they’re long staple fibers, whereas the cotton is shorter fibers," says Joyce Walton, vice president of operations for SanSegal. "It’s then carted and wound back into yarn, knit back into our fabrics, and cut and sewn into garments."

Types of Garments

The recycled poly/cotton blend allows Walton to create anything from a lightweight jersey to novelty knits on fleece. The majority of San
Segal’s products are mostly cotton, offering combinations of 75/25, 65/35 and 50/50 cotton/poly blends, depending on the type of apparel.

Bergill says econscious uses recycled polyester in many of its items, including:

  • Grocery tote bags made of 80% recycled poly and 20% virgin poly
  • Stretch-fit hats made of 96% recycled poly and 4% spandex
  • Trucker hats, in which the hat’s mesh is made of 100% recycled poly
  • Aprons made of 45% recycled poly and 55% organic cotton.

"In our selection, the grocery tote and the trucker hat have been the most popular of our new styles," says Bergill, who adds that econscious uses 20% recycled poly in all of its sweatshirts.

Dillon Ford, marketing manager for distributor ePromos Promotional Products Inc. (asi/188515), says many of his end-users are crazy about recycled polyester fleece and jackets. "They like the smooth and soft feel of the fabric," he says. "It makes a difference in their decision."

The fleeces were popular for ePromos in a recent order from Kashi, a whole-grain and sesame food company; Kashi ordered 42 fleeces to give to its employees at an annual meeting. ePromos also did 60 fleece garments as employee gifts for Springer, an international publisher. Both companies wanted the recycled poly for the same reason:

"They are trying to be as eco-friendly as possible," Ford says.

A Variety of Embellishments

The great thing about recycled polyester is its versatility with embellishment options. "Any embellishment that can be done on conventional polyester products can be done to recycled polyester," Denkensohn says. "Embroidery, screen printing and sublimation printing are the most common ones."

But when it comes to direct-to-garment printers, Denkensohn cautions, "You need to use inks that are specifically designed for polyester to get the best result."

Walton says SanSegal performs screen printing, embroidery and appliqué embellishments on its recycled poly/cotton garments. "It’s carted, it’s compacted and it’s pre-shrunk," she says. "We do everything except for laser printing, because the cotton fiber doesn’t work well with the laser."

Green-Minded Industries

Walton says corporations love to buy recycled polyester polos for their staff. "It gives them an opportunity to be green and put their name on something green," she says.
SanSegal sells to schools, along with gift shops in national parks. "That’s a priority for our national parks and their vendors within. The national parks love it; it allows them one more step to be greener," Walton says. "It’s the same with schools. They’re teaching kids every day that they need to be greener. We do their spirit and pride shirts."

SanSegal has also created recycled poly/cotton garments for staff and vendors at ballparks.

Denkensohn says recycled polyester can generally be used as a substitute for polyester. However, "There may be some applications that cannot be made recycled due to technical or quality issues, like microdeniers," he says.

True Eco-Friendliness?

While it certainly has its environmental benefits, Ford says that polyester can never be completely eco-friendly because of the way it is made. "The chemical bond that takes place has some detrimental aspects to it that makes it non-environmentally friendly," he says. "So, whether you are recycling old polyester clothing or using plastic water bottles, there are going to be toxins released into the air when you break those materials down again to be usable."

Ford says the true eco-friendly value of recycled polyester stems from the fact that using recycled poly in clothing instead of non-recycled poly limits the amount of discarded plastic bottles and used polyester garments that would otherwise go in a landfill, "which ultimately reduces the amount of toxins entering the air and ground."

In fact, when compared to conventional polyester, "There are only positive aspects to recycled polyester," Denkensohn says. "Recycled polyester does not require drilling of oil, requires 70% to 84% less energy to produce compared to virgin polyester, depending on the method used, and reuses products that are headed for a landfill and that would not biodegrade in a landfill."

Denkensohn adds, "Having said that, just about every manufacturing process pollutes the Earth in some way, and recycling of polyester is not free of pollution."

Shane Dale is a contributing writer for Wearables.

Recycling Enthusiasm:
No Longer Bottled Up

Select Designs in Burlington, VT recently had a not-so-modest order for Dale Denkensohn: 10,000 T-shirts made from 50/50 recycled polyester/cotton material. "They wanted to show what can be done with soda bottles after they have been recycled," says Denkensohn, president of econscious (asi/51656).

The reason: Select Designs’ client was a major beverage company. The tees were to be used for a one-time grocery store promotion. "They were for a combination of customers and staff," Denkensohn says, adding that the shirts provided "a tangible product to look at with the displays that were used."

Denkensohn says the promotion was so successful that the beverage company is planning on using recycled polyester at upcoming events in an effort to tangibly demonstrate the effects of recycling the company’s bottles. Of course, the softness of the T-shirts didn’t hurt, either. "Other than the fact that they were recycled, they loved the feel of the garment and that the fiber was U.S.-made," he says.

Recycled Polyester’s Green Challenges

Colette Chandler, founder of The Marketing Insider, a firm that holds seminars nationwide to help companies understand the eco-friendly market, says any fabric that is made of recycled material contains a certain percentage of polyester that comes from "chips" that were manufactured by the recycling facility. The chips are the tiny pieces that result after plastic bottles are crushed. "Using these chips has several issues that are exclusive to the textile industry," she says.

These issues could cause recycled polyester to seem less eco-friendly. Among them are:

  • The base color of the recycled polyester chips varies from white to creamy yellow, "making color consistency difficult to achieve, particularly for pale shades," Chandler says. "Some dyers find it hard to get a white, so they’re using chlorine-based bleaches to whiten the base."
  • Dye uptake inconsistency can make it difficult to obtain a good "batch-to-batch color consistency," Chandler says, which can lead to an increased occurrence of re-dyeing. "Re-dyeing contributes to high levels of water, energy and chemical use," she says.
  • There are some reports – albeit unsubstantiated ones, Chandler says – that claim that some recycled yarns require nearly 30% more dye to obtain the same shade depth as virgin polyester.
  • • The introduction of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) – commonly called vinyl – into the polymer that comes from bottle wrappers and labels could also be a problem. Some environmentalist groups, including Greenpeace, have suggested that the use of PVC should be discontinued because it is one of the world’s largest dioxin sources, which can be detrimental to the environment.

Chandler says that while most plastics can be recycled, mechanical recycling produces a polymer that is less stable, which means that products that are made from recycled plastic are of "less value" than the original.

"The reality is that the recycling can only be done mechanically a few times before the polymers break down and the plastic is no longer useful or useable," Chandler says. "Every time plastic is melted down, its molecular composition changes, its quality degrades and the range of its usefulness shrinks. So, when you buy a fabric made of recycled polyester, remember it’s at the end of its useful life."

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