We’ve always been intrigued by environmentally friendly ideas, but are we all so caught up with the ideas that we sometimes disregard some of their drawbacks? Recently, my dad, who works in the garment industry, talked about his visit to the recycled fabric factory, where plastics are recycled to make a type of fabric called PET fabric. I was instantly fascinated by it and I wanted to learn more, so I began my little research. I found out that the concept of recycled plastics to make fabrics is not new, so I decided that I wanted to know to what extent this process of recycled plastics are really sustainable. I began by looking at the nature of PET.
PET stands for Polyethylene terephthalate, a type of strong and transparent polyester primarily used for plastic bottles and jars (Napcor, 2013). This is one of the most manufactured polymers in the world (Derry, Clark, Ellis, Jeffrey, & Jordan, 2009). PET consists of ethylene glycol, extracted from petroleum, and terephtalic acid. Both are linked together to form a polymer chain (PET Resin Association, 2012). As can be seen from the image shown below, PET has a large molecular structure, thus the name “polyethylene” to describe the many ethylene parts. The large structure also contributes to the fact that PET is a strong material. Strands of PET are cut into little balls and are melted so it can be molded into different types of products. This type of structure is known to be “chemically inert”, meaning that they do not readily react with other chemicals. (How Stuff Works, 2007). This makes plastics like PET unable to decompose, in other words, not biodegradable, posing a threat to our environment.
Today, many PET fabrics are made from recycled plastic bottles. This is a very good way of recycling plastic, rather than stacking more of them in the landfill. The plastics are re-melted and made into clothing fibers that are later used to manufacture PET garments. From this perspective, recycling PET can be very energy efficient. Because ethylene is extracted from petroleum, recycling PET will reduce dependence on the scarce raw material. The material is heat and electricity resistant, making PET great insulators. All of this is great, but what if these do not end up getting recycled? What if no one wanted your PET garments, and you had no choice but to toss these clothes out?
Another disadvantage of PET manufacturing is its inevitable toxic emissions detrimental to the environment. Although recycling polymers is environmentally friendly, ironically its production releases carcinogens like CFCs that deplete the ozone layer (Derry, Clark, Ellis, Jeffrey, & Jordan, 2009). Can we now say that recycling plastics is sustainable in the long run?
Scientists have been working towards biopolymers and biodegradable plastics to reduce these environmental issues. Cellulose, starches, and soy protein polyesters from plants and bacteria can be used to make biodegradable plastics. Perhaps this can one day reduce the amount poured into those filthy and toxic landfills. Although it is still expensive to produce bio plastics, research and development has been advancing, and hopefully it can serve as a more economical and sustainable alternative to the current plastics we use.
Derry, L., Clark, F., Ellis, J., Jeffrey, F., & Jordan, C. (2009). Chemistry for use with the IB Diploma Programme Options: Standard and Higher Level. Melbourne, Victoria: Pearson Heinemann.
Freudenrich (2007), How Plastics Work. How Stuff Works. Retrieved from http://science.howstuffworks.com/plastic.htm
PET Resin Association (2012), An Introduction to PET, PET Resin Association. Retrieved from http://petresin.org/news_introtoPET.asp
Napcor (2013), PET Sustainability. National Association for PET Container Resources. Retrieved from http://www.napcor.com/PET/sustainability.html
Polyethylene_terephthalate [image]. (2007). Retrieved from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/ff/Polyethylene_terephthalate.svg