Cotton Versus Polyester

andrew olahPicture this. A future time, perhaps 10 years from today. It’s Christmas morning, and a young kid opens the Christmas gift his grandparents gave him.

He unpacks it quickly hoping he likes whatever is being given because he needs to look happy, and the best way to do that is to actually be happy. Unpacked, the gift he finds is a 100 percent polyester team jersey from his favorite professional basketball player. Perhaps it’s the jersey Lebron James’ son wears for the Boston Celtics. He holds it up to show the family and says, “Do you guys realize this is made from polyester and will never biodegrade? I mean never EVER EVER BIODEGRADE?”

“Oh?” his grandmother says, “The store said it was recycled polyester.” The kid rolls his eyes. “So it does last forever.”

In February 2015, CNN wrote, “Nearly every piece of plastic still exists on Earth, regardless of whether it’s been recycled, broken down into microscopic bits or discarded in the ocean.”

And the world keeps producing more of the material – creating 288 million metric tons of it in 2012. About 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of it ended up in the oceans in 2010, according to the Journal of Science:

The word “plastic” is an umbrella term used to describe a variety of molecules, including polyethylene terephthalate (PET) or polyester, the same polyester that competes with cotton in world fiber markets or is used in NBA, NHL, NFL and college sports uniforms. There are about 45 different types of “plastic,” but six types account for the bulk of plastic production. Many containers are numbered on the bottom to indicate their molecular structure:

  • Plastic #1 is PET, used in soda and water bottles and clothing. This is the most common form of polyester used in textile fibers.
  • Plastic #2 is High Density Polyethylene (HDPE), used in soap bottles and milk jugs.
  • Plastic #3 is Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) (often known as vinyl), used in outdoor furniture, shrink wrap and water bottles.
  • Plastic #4 is Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE), used in produce bags and food containers. The little plastic bags used in markets often become contaminants in seed cotton.
  • Plastic #5 is Polypropylene (PP), used in bottle caps and food containers. PP competes directly with many natural fibers, including jute, sisal, hemp and coir in rope and bagging applications, and PP is a major source of contamination in cotton because of its use in fertilizer and food bags that are often used by farmers in developing countries as seed cotton sacks.
  • Plastic #6 is Polystyrene (PS), used in packaging and foam cups.
  • Plastic #7 is all other types of plastic polymers with a variety of uses.

What seems right is to substitute natural fibers for unnatural fibers wherever possible. Let us blend more wool, cotton, linen and reduce our use of polyester and other synthetics. Let us support humans that grow natural fibers – people who live off the fibers rather than support factories that don’t replenish resources. Is it not clear to everyone by now that there is a limited amount of petroleum?

Do we really need a college football team like Texas Tech wearing 100 percent polyester uniforms when cotton is grown all around Lubbock? Do sports teams at Southern Cal and UCLA really need to play games in synthetic uniforms when they are two hours from Bakersfield farm country? Seventeen states grow cotton, but every sports team in each state wears polyester. What is it that I’m missing?

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