After a decade of popularity in the 1970s, polyester's appeal plummeted and natural fibers became de rigueur. But now, polyester is making a comeback - and the same folks who eschewed the fabric in the past are lining up to buy the new version, which is made from recycled soda bottles.
Consumers who recycle poly-ethylene terephthalate (PET) see the fruits of their labor when they purchase clothing made from the recycled materials. Polyester's durability and resilience has made believers of many environmentally aware outdoor enthusiasts, but manufacturing im-provements are helping it gain a wider audience.
"Products made from recycled PET give consumers incentive to keep the cycle going by recycling PET plastic," said Luke Schmidt, president of the Na-tional Association for Plastic Container Recovery (NAPCOR) in Charlotte, N.C. "They are tangible evidence that putting soda bottles and other PET containers in the recycling bins helps keep them out of the landfill and brings them back into people's homes as new products."
PET and high-density poly-ethylene (HDPE) account for 90 percent of all rigid packaging. PET plastic is used to make soft drink and food containers such as ketchup and salad dressings and in non-food containers for items like cleaning products and tennis balls. PET is the most frequently recycled type of plastic, according to the Na-tional Association for Plastic Container Recovery, which has reported that in 1993, 33 percent of all polyethylene terephthalate containers that were manufactured and sold in the United States were reportedly recycled - an amount that is e-quivalent to approximately 450 million pounds.
Fiber is the biggest market for post-consumer PET, and demand currently outweighs supply. For in-stance, 365 million pounds of PET plastic were collected in 1992, but manufacturers needed 567 million pounds of the material for production. One researcher has estimated that demand will continue to ex-ceed supply through 1997, when it's expected to reach 1 billion pounds.
Recent engineering developments have created a process to clean, shred and melt plastic into recycled fiber that rivals virgin polyester (see chart). The molten liquid solidifies into superfine fiber that can be spun into thread for manufacturing clothing. Finer fibers result in higher quality material, and the level of fineness depends on the purest plastic possible. PET has a purity advantage because it was originally used in products for hu-man consumption.
Wellman Inc., Shrewsbury, N.J., is the nation's largest manufacturer of polyester fiber and one of the largest polyethylene terephthalate recyclers. The company produces a 100-percent-recycled-fiber polyester material, Fortrel Ecospun.
Scientific Certification Sys-tems performed an environmental life-cycle study to determine the amount of energy used to produce, transport, use and dispose Fortrel Ecospun. The results indicated that the material uses 60 times less plastic, four times less carbon dioxide and six times less sulfur than virgin polyester.
Many companies are jumping on the recycled clothing bandwagon. A year ago, Fortrel Eco-spun could only be found in Synchilla sweaters, which are available in Patagonia stores and catalogs for about $85. Twenty-five plastic soda bottles are needed to manufacture each sweater. Today, Wellman supplies more than 60 manufacturers who use Ecospun in everything from shoelaces to sports- wear to bedding, according to the company.
The lowly soda bottle, once thrown into the trash can along with discarded polyester leisure suits, is experiencing a literal re-birth in the new age of poly-ester.