The days of Tony Manero-esque leisure suits may be over, but polyester’s heyday has only just begun. From dress pants to scarves, the controversial synthetic is as ubiquitous as ever, standing in as easily for wool as it does for silk and at a fraction of the cost. Yet the health and environmental hazards that petrochemicals pose are well-documented. Scientists at Toray Industries in Japan, however, have created samples of what they claim is the world’s first fully renewable, bio-based polyethylene terephthalate (PET) fiber—the stuff that polyester’s made of. Plant-based disco flares? We just might be able to get on board with that.

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A form of PET you may be more familiar with: plastic bottles


But first, a brief chemistry lesson: The base chemicals that make up polyester are created during the process of refining oil and natural gas, the main one being paraxylene. Toray succeeded where no one else did by using bio-based paraxylene, which a company called Gevo derives from refining biofuel rather than crude oil.

Around 40 million tons of polyester fiber, derived from polyester, is produced worldwide annually.

The impact of the discovery cannot be overstated. Around 40 million tons of polyester fiber, created from PET, is produced worldwide annually, according to the company. But studies show that conventional polyester can leach phthalates, a class of chemicals used to make plastic more flexible, into our bodies. Readily absorbed by the skin, phthalates are known to disrupt the development and functioning of reproductive organs, resulting in reduced sperm counts, testicular atrophy, and early breast development.

Plus, polyester isn’t unique to clothing, but it’s also found in furniture, pillow batting, shower curtains, and other non-wearable fabric items, which means that Toray could stand to make a nice chunk of change from its discovery.

“The success of this trial, albeit under laboratory conditions, is proof that polyester fiber can be industrially produced from fully renewable biomass feedstock alone,” says a company spokesperson. “This is a significant step that would contribute to the realization of a sustainable, low-carbon society.”

Because the bio-based fiber behaves no differently from its synthetic counterpart, a good old nontoxic switcheroo might just be in the cards. And if everything goes according to plan, maybe no one will even notice.

+ Press Release

+ Toray

+ Gevo

[Via Ecotextile News]