Opinion

The rise and rise of polyester

Are there more sustainable alternatives for this highly cost-effective material?

Philip Marshall

Polyester Chain

Philip is responsible for Wood Mackenzie's research and analysis of the global polyester chain

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Polyester is everywhere – from the plastic bottles we drink from to the shirts on our backs. It's is hugely cost-effective and it’s not easy to replicate its economies of scale. Are there more sustainable alternatives? 

 

As the only product capable of clothing a growing global population, it is here to stay.

And despite the backlash against single-use plastics, in the absence of cost-effective replacements, we will continue to use PET for the next 10, and probably even 20, years.

As awareness of its environmental impact grows, producers and consumers are asking: are there better, more sustainable alternatives that are viable for the medium-to-long term?

The problem with scale

The short answer is no. More than 40 years of investment in the polyester industry means that no other material has the same economies of scale.

Part of the reason polyester is so cheap is because of its chemistry: a little over a third of the chemical compound is made up of an ingredient that is free and in plentiful supply: oxygen.

Demand for cheap raw materials initially drove investment in polyester. As the industry increased in scale, this served to lower the cost of production further, making polyester widely available.

It is highly improbable that in just a few years, any other material could build comparable scale on the same level that we see in the polyester industry.

Polyester clothes the world

Polyester is produced at a rate of 3-4 Mtpa, and the demand for virgin polyester has increased at a rate of 25 - 30% per year. Less than a third of current production is used for packaging. We need polyester to clothe the world.

Alternative fibre polymers such as nylon and acrylics have seen cost limit growth at scale, while natural alternatives like cotton cannot be produced in large enough volumes to meet demand.

Polyester’s environmental footprint is competitive with alternatives, and it has the best recycling credentials of any polymer.

Bio-based plastics?

The industry is exploring new technologies, but change will come slowly, and scale will be the most significant barrier to overcome.

Bio-based plastics such as polyethylene furanoate (PEF) remain relatively unproven, and will not be in a position to compete economically until they can be produced at industrial scale.

While the industry searches for other options, it is likely that crude oil based raw materials will remain the norm at least the next 10-15 years.

With no real viable alternatives, we need to get better at using and disposing of these materials more responsibly to protect our environment.

At the 2018 Living with Plastic Packaging conference, we explained the economics of polyester and why the industry’s scale makes it difficult to find viable replacements. Fill in the form on this page to download a copy of the presentation slides.

*Source: Coca-Cola 2016 Sustainability Report, Aug 17 2017.