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Recycled Polyester (rPET) - Not a Perfect Solution, But It Can Be! How?


Advantages of rPET

Recycled Polyester, or recycled polyethylene terephthalate if like saying a mouthful, is being touted by the fashion industry as solution to plastic pollution. But is it? It’s definitely a start.

Recycled polyester generates 79% less carbon emissions than polyester made from crude oil, according to a 2017 life-cycle analysis. Now considering that over 65% of the materials used in textiles are made from petroleum products, that is a HUGE load off of Mother Nature. Even better, is that it provides a solution to dealing with billions of tons of discarded plastics like disposable water bottles. The plastics are melted down and then spinnerets create the strands to produce the garments.

There is also a huge social and economical advantage of using rPET in textiles. In order to create the material, bottles must be collected. Now this may not seem like a big thing to those who live in areas with recycling receptacles, but it is a life changer for those who live in developing countries. Organizations like Plastic Bank have set up establishments in countries like Brazil, Egypt, Haiti, Indonesia and the Philippines. People in such areas can collect plastic, have it weighed and receive money for the plastic that they trade in. While crude oil is only accessible to large corporations who can afford the equipment to extract the oil, discarded plastic bottles can be collected by people without any equipment. This is a case where, one man’s trash is quite literally another man’s treasure, or income. Beaches and waterways get cleaned and impoverished families have the opportunity to make an income. It’s a Win-Win!


The Disadvantages of rPET

So with so many advantages, why is there any controversy over the issue? Recycling textiles is not a perfect solution on it’s own. It’s like looking at a puzzle that’s missing a few prices and staring at the holes in the picture rather than searching for the missing piece. Unfortunately, as absurd as it sounds, some people really are like that.

So what are the problems? Virgin or recycled, polyester is still a plastic. As it wears, it sheds fibrous microplastics, and that is a big problem.


Pollution Solutions Start At Home

However, to gain perspective, one has to ascertain where the majority of this shedding of wear-and-tear takes place. I’ll give you a hint and moment to guess. If only we had some technology that could wash and dry our laundry and trap the shed fibers of lint. 🤔 Oh, if only.

Was that too obvious? 😃 I’ll make it harder next time, I promise. Machine washing clothes helps to clean many of those fibrous microplastics from our clothes! AND they could be the start of dramatically reducing microplastics in the environment. We just need to remedy our effluent methods.

Let’s start with dryers for example. As your dryer tumbles your clothes, the friction releases any loose fibers and many of those get stuck in the lint trap. (By the way, that lint could be a great sustainable option for making paper. But that’s a blog for a different day.) The problem lies in your dryer vent. Many fibers make it past the trap and escape into the environment. Simply adding a “bucket filter” to you dryer’s vent can solve that issue. Bucket filters are easy to build and it’s something families can add on their own homes. I’ll go into greater detail in the video.

Unless you have a septic system like we have, the second issue will call for some action from our local waste water treatment plants. We know that plastics don’t breakdown easily without some help. The shed microfibers that get pumped away by our washing machines will end up being skimmed away along with the fat and happy bacteria that treat our water at those plants. Then, the bacterial sludge and scum is dried and taken to the landfill. And that is where the answers to dealing with plastics could be.


Long Term Pollution Solutions

Bacteria are nature's little problem solvers. If not for bacteria, no life would exist. They are the beginning and the end of every biological cycle in every ecosystem. Even in the cold, crushing depths at the bottom of the ocean, bacteria convert toxic plumes of gas into a food source for an entire ecosystem.

Your body is covered inside and out, with beneficial bacteria that feed and protect the small biosphere that is your body. The bacteria on your skin are actually the start of a long process of breaking down microplastics. As you sweat, the same bacteria that feed on the toxins in your sweat transfer to your clothes. Bacteria can thrive on any source of carbon and polyester is actually a hydrocarbon. Have you ever noticed that your clothing made from synthetics have a tendency to smell more than your clothing made from cotton. That smell is produced by bacteria that decided your sweat was not the only food source that they were interested in. In fact, your sweat and those bacteria are the first step in plastic degradation.

Scientists have noted that the degradation of various types of microplastics can be fully accomplished by several bacteria, such as Bacillus sp. BCBT21, Bacillus amyloliquefaciens BSM-1, B. amyloliquefaciens BSM-2, Pseudomonas putida, Bacillus subtilis, Bacillus cereus, Brevibaccillus borstelensis, Bacillus vallismortis bt-dsce 01, P. protegens bt-dsce 02, Stenotrophomonas sp. bt-dsce03, and Paenibacillus sp.bt-dsce04. Extracellular hydrolytic enzymes such as CMCase, lipase, xylanase, keratinase, chitinase, and protease secreted by these bacteria play a charismatic role in plastic degradation. Urea also adds to the degradation and guess where there is an abundance of urea - waste water treatment plants that are processing your urine and excrement.

The fact is, most waste treatment plants already have the facilities in place. With careful “seeding” they can add bacteria to the humus that gets taken to the landfills. And as long as the landfills keep the substate moist the bacteria can do the rest.


The Perfect Solution

How Can You Help?

If we want to get rid of plastics entirely, we need to stop producing new plastics and start wearing out the plastics already in existence.

You can help.

  1. Install a bucket filter on your dryer vent. Or, for those who live in an apartment, ask a friend who is willing to install one if you can do your laundry at their place.

  2. As a consumer, you control the demand. Veer away from buying products with new plastics or textiles made from virgin synthetic materials.

  3. Start buying products that use recycled plastic.

  4. Buy clothing made from recycled Polyester and work up a sweat as often as possible. 😅

  5. And lastly, stop listening to negative nay-sayers. Positive change starts with hope.


A note from the author:

My family began our Sustainable Journey in 2008 when our son was born. We know the struggle of finding support when being Green isn’t mainstream. So, we have put together a community page for others on the same journey to support one another. We also gathered as many Zero Waste products as we could find and gathered them on our shop. Since we are minimalist, purchases fund volunteer cleanups and excess is donated to Plastic Bank.

“In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” Support one another.



References:

Microplastic degradation by bacteria in aquatic ecosystem

PremChandra-1

Enespa-2

Devendra P.Singh-3

1

Department of Environmental Microbiology, School for Environmental Sciences, Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar (A Central) University, Lucknow, India

2

Department of Plant Pathology, School for Agriculture, SMPDC, University of Lucknow, Lucknow, India

3

Department of Environmental Science, School for Environmental Sciences, Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar (A Central) University, Lucknow, India

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