Imagine wrapping yourself in a plastic wrap and going for a walk. Do you think you would feel comfortable? Probably not. Plastic doesn’t breathe, it would make you sweat and just an idea itself of wearing plastic doesn’t sound so good, does it? But somehow humankind managed to do just that for the last few decades. And if it all sounds confusing and you’re not sure what I’m talking about... Well I’m talking about clothes made out of polyester. Because POLYESTER IS PLASTIC.

The History of Polyester

Polyester is a synthetic fiber derived from coal, air, water, and petroleum (yeah, same thing that runs your car). It was developed in 1928, but it started to gain its popularity as clothing fiber during the 1950's. At that time it was marketed “as a miracle fiber that could be worn for 68 days without ironing and still look presentable. Polyester was once hailed as a magic fiber capable of being washed, scrunched and pulled on without showing any signs of water or wrinkles” (Textile Dyeing, Peter J. Hauser, 6p.). While all of this is true, marketers forgot to mention that polyester also has some disadvantages. It’s not breathable, its moisture absorption is low and it will melt in high temperatures meaning that you should be extra careful when wearing polyester clothes close to an open fire. Melting fabric can stick to your skin and make injuries even worse. Because of this reason, even the US Marine Corps stopped wearing polyester.

It didn’t take too long for people to notice that this new innovative fabric wasn’t so magical and interest in polyester clothes started to fall in the 1970’s. However by the end of 1980's chemists improved polyester and created “a fiber that, when blended with natural fibers, feels just like those natural materials. The result is the comfort of cotton, luxurious feel of silk and the texture of wool - and usually at lower prices” (Daily Press, 1989). Even professional tailors had a hard time telling the difference between natural fibers and polyester. And since it was much cheaper to produce synthetic fiber than to use natural materials, it comes as no surprise that polyester became a very popular fiber in clothing manufacturing.

Polyester Today

Popularity of polyester fiber continues to this day. According to an Oerlikon presentation published at ITMA 2019, polyester and other synthetic fibers (like polyamide), contained 63% of the total world fiber market in 2018 (Graph 1).


Graph 1. Global Fiber Production in 2018

With growing synthetic fibers popularity we learned even more about it. While the first intention was to make long lasting clothes so people would need to shop less often, quite the opposite thing happened. Clothes became more affordable, people started to buy more and manufacturers kept on making more and more. Everyday clothes have lost their value and are rarely passed to other generations like it used to be in the past. The recent study shows that the average person wears one clothing piece only seven times before getting rid of it. So most of the unwanted clothes (polyester clothes including) quickly end up in landfills. But while it takes up to 1 year for a cotton garment to decompose, for the similar item made out of polyester it can take 200 years or longer even in the perfect conditions. In recent years companies started to work on this issue and brands like Patgonia or Adidas are now making clothes out of recycled polyester. It does sound great but the truth is, there is so much textile waste that only very little percent of it is recycled (Graph 2). 

Another huge problem caused by polyester garments is micro-plastic pollution in our water. Microplastic is small plastic particles that are less than <5mm in diameter unless stated otherwise (brenmicroplastics.weebly.com). Microplastic fibers are now found everywhere in the world from rivers, oceans and shorelines to animals AND human bodies. And one of the main microplastic sources is synthetic clothing. Everytime we do laundry and wash polyester, nylon or acrylic clothes, millions of little plastic particles are released and enter our water supply. Particles are so little that even washing machine filters cannot catch them. In 2011 the ecologist Mark Anthony Browne announced that 85% of the human-made materials found on the shorelines were microfibers used in clothing (plasticsoupfoundation.org). And this is scary enough, but another alarming fact is, that while in the water, microplastic can be consumed by fish and other wildlife and they are likely to be eaten by humans. Another research done by the Medical University of Vienna and the Environment Agency Austria monitored a group of people across the world and later tested their stool samples. Every single sample tested positive for the presence of microplastic!

Graph 2. 1960-2017 Data on Textiles.


What Can We Do?

Scientists and environmentalists continue to talk about all the issues caused by the textile industry and especially the ones caused by synthetic fibers. But because polyester and other synthetics don't cost a lot and are very versatile, brands are still using it. Fast fashion companies are the biggest contributors to these issues since they’re producing clothes everyday. So what we, as consumers, can do about it?


  • Buy better quality, long lasting clothes made out of natural materials from trustworthy companies.
  • Wash your clothes at a lower temperature.
  • Wash synthetic clothes, you already own, in special garment bags that reduce fiber shedding and work as a filter.
  • Don’t use a dryer. Like washing machines, dryers also “helps” to release microfibers. 

So, maybe it is time to say goodbye to polyester clothes?



Dacron polyester: The fall from grace of a miracle fabric, Stephen Demeo, published online in 2009

Dailymail.co.uk, 2006

Dailypress.com, “Polyester Reigns Again”, 1989

Epa.com, United States Environmental Protection Agency

Eurekalert.org, “Microplastics discovered in human stools across the globe in 'first study of its kind'”, Spink Health, 2018

Historical Dictionary of Fashion Industry, Francesca Sterlacci, Joanne Arbuckle, 2007

Innovateeco.com, “How long does your garbage take to decompose or break down?”, Rob Wreglesworth

Manufacturing Process of Polyester Fiber, Muhammad Yousaf, 2020



Plastic Soup Foundation

Synthetic Clothes Off Limits to Marines Outside Bases in Iraq, Lance Cpl. Stephen Holt, USMC, 2006

Textile Dyeing, Peter J. Hauser, 2011

The Development of Synthetic Fibers, G. Loasby, published online in 2009

The Guardian, “How your clothes are poisoning our oceans and food supply”, Lea Messinger, 2016

Webmd.com, “Am I Allergic to my Clothes?”, Sabrina Felson MD, 2018


  • “Talk is cheap. Show me the code.” - Linus Torvalds