How Bad Is Gore-Tex for the Environment?
Gore-Tex is best known for its waterproof rainwear, with incredibly breathable fabric compared to most rainwear brands. However, it comes as no surprise that this material relies almost entirely on petroleum-based fabrics.
While Gore-Tex has improved since the 1970s and become more sustainable, there are still many concerns about the products and how much environmental harm they do.
Gore-Tex is bad for the environment thanks to the chemicals used in production and the lack of biodegradability of the fabric. Efforts to become more sustainable have helped, with Gore-Tex turning to less harmful water repellents on their products, but there are far better alternatives out there.
Is Gore-Tex harmful to the environment?
Gore-Tex is a waterproof fabric membrane used for raincoats due to being able to repel liquids and still remain breathable and lightweight. Made from polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), Gore-Tex has been used for decades to create rainwear and has even been used for creating spacesuits.
Unfortunately, Gore-Tex isn’t environmentally friendly. Despite manufacturer Gore’s claim that they are “committed to achieving a positive economic and societal impact while being environmentally responsible“, previously they stated that This material being durable is enough to consider it “environmentally sound”.
Now Gore has accepted that “durable product performance is no longer enough”, they state that they’re taking responsibility for their “actions and contributions”. But is it enough to combat the environmental harm Gore-Tex does?
PTFE is a synthetic polymer made from carbon and fluorine. Anyone who remembers the fight against CFCs might remember that CFCs are chlorofluorocarbons – also made with carbon and fluorine.
Fluorine is “highly toxic” to living organisms, more so than hydrogen and similar to chlorine. Known to be fatal if inhaled, fluorine has an extremely irritating vapor, and is considered an “acute hazardous waste“.
Fluorine gas is also a trace material in emissions from coal power plants and volcanoes. When fluorine decomposes in water, it forms hydrofluoric acid, hydrogen peroxide, and oxygen fluoride.
Most fluorine pollution comes from nuclear power generation and the production of superphosphate fertilizer, glass, aluminum, ceramics, bricks, and more.
Most of Gore-Tex’s harm comes from the chemicals used in its production and the lack of biodegradability of all of its fabrics.
Is Gore-Tex sustainable?
Gore-Tex is not sustainable – PTFE is made from plastics and other parts of waterproof products use nylon and polyester.
To make them waterproof, such products are also sprayed with perfluorinated compounds (PFCs). PFCs are non-biodegradable and can even accumulate in our bodies. The accumulation of some PFCs has been linked to cancers and birth defects, as found in a 2014 study, though this involves ingesting or inhaling the PFCs.
Is Gore-Tex recyclable?
Gore-Tex previously offered a recycling program which was discontinued in the 90s due to “consumers [that] were not as willing to return these garments for recycling even after years of use”.
Gore-Tex products contain an outer layer (typically nylon or polyester), an inner layer (PTFE), and a durable water-repellent coating (PFCs). While nylon and polyester can be recycled, the inner layer is very difficult to recycle, and the coating also impacts how recyclable the outer layer is.
Instead of recycling, such products can be donated or repurposed, but it’s important not to discard them in the environment.
Is Gore-Tex chemically forever?
Nothing truly lasts forever, but Gore-Tex products are so durable and non-biodegradable that they could degrade slower than even plastics… and then there are the chemicals.
While the chemicals used in the production of waterproof products are very environmentally sensitive and cause pollution during production, to be safe for humans the chemicals must be inert. This is how Gore-Tex is accepted as safe for humans by many government agencies.
PFCs aren’t easily broken down, with a half-life of greater than 60 days in water or soil, and the PFCs used in Gore-Tex clothing is “PFCs of environmental concern”. While companies have reduced how much these PFCs are used, there are still concerns.
PFCs can pollute water and harm aquatic life if enough of them get into water sources. If a landfill of multiple Gore-Tex products was flooded, the chemicals from the PFCs could pollute the water and have devastating consequences for local aquatic life. Other chemicals in that landfill would also have a major impact too.
The PTFE in Gore-Tex can also release chemicals when burned at over 250C, including fluorocarbon gases like tetrafluoroethylene and difluorocarbene radicals.
Other chemicals related to Gore-Tex are created or used in its production. These chemicals, like PFOA, are incredibly toxic to the environment and are known to contribute to pollution.
PFOA is a possible carcinogen, hepatotoxic (living toxicant), developmentally toxicant, and immunotoxic (immune system toxicant). It’s also been shown to have negative effects on thyroid hormone production.
Is Gore-Tex clothing safe?
Gore-Tex clothing is safe to wear, but the production of this material isn’t safe for the environment or the people involved in producing it.
The chemicals used to create Gore-Tex can be inhaled by workers and cause adverse health effects to them without proper protective equipment, but it’s completely safe for people to wear.
Is Gore-Tex harmful to humans?
Wearing such clothing is not harmful to humans, though some of the chemicals used in production or within the clothing can be harmful in their chemical form.
There is no risk of harm to human health from PFCs unless you ingest or inhale the PFCs. It cannot be absorbed through the skin, so the durable water-repellent covering used in Gore-Tex clothing is safe for humans.
Is Gore-Tex a carcinogen?
It itself is not carcinogenic, but it can give off carcinogenic fumes when burned.
To give off carcinogenic fumes, the fabric would have to burn at over 250C. Being in Gore-Tex clothing during a wildfire adds an additional danger, but it’s largely unlikely to happen to the majority of wearers.
What is Gore-Tex made from?
It is made from polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), specifically with ePTFE which is an expanded variant of PTFE. Products also use nylon and polyester layers.
All Gore-Tex fabric is sprayed with a durable water repellent. Some products use a PFC-free durable water repellent, but they aren’t transparent about what chemicals are used instead.
Is Gore-Tex made from oil?
Gore-Tex layers clothing with nylon or polyester, both of which are derived from petroleum. Nylon and polyester are derived from unrefined petroleum or crude oil.
Is Gore-Tex plastic?
PTFE is a thermoplastic polymer, though most sources avoid the use of the word ‘plastic’.
Because PTFE is a synthetic polymer, we know that it is a plastic, even if most businesses aren’t transparent about this. All plastics are polymers, though not all polymers are plastics, so it can be confusing to find out whether the material is actually plastic.
Gore-Tex products use PTFE as well as nylon or polyester, which are also plastics.
Is Gore-Tex made from Teflon?
Yes, it is made from Teflon, which is the brand name for PTFE.
How long will Gore-Tex last?
An expected life span of 2 to 5 years with regular use. For people who use Gore-Tex clothing infrequently, the products can be expected to last up to 15 years.
When the fabric layers begin to separate, this is known as delamination, which leaves a bubbling effect on the fabric surface. This can’t be repaired easily, but for other issues, you should be able to find a way of repairing the fabric.
Adhesive patches can be bought to repair holes and tears. When the fabric loses its waterproof quality, you can use a durable water-repellent spray to ‘top it up, though it might be worth questioning whether you really need to.
Unless you have multiple Gore-Tex products, it may be worth looking at charity shops or thrift stores to buy a secondhand replacement instead of adding more environmental harm.
Is Gore-Tex really worth it?
The benefits of waterproof clothing are clear – nobody wants to be soaking wet, especially if you’re into hiking or outdoor sports. However, Gore-Tex clothing isn’t worth it for anyone who can hold an umbrella or wear less harmful raincoats.
While polyester and nylon raincoats are still harmful to the environment, they use less harmful chemicals than Gore Tex.
An even better alternative is Patagonia, an eco-conscious company with 87% of its products made with recycled materials. Patagonia’s rainwear uses a PFC-free durable water repellent coating and the company strives to be as sustainable as possible.