Your clothes are part of the plastic problem - here's what you can do about it
Plastic is everywhere. It's in our fridges, kitchen cupboards, bathroom cabinets, computers, cars, and all over supermarket shelves. You'd be hard pushed to get through the day without using or coming into contact with several things made out of the stuff. But did you know that our wardrobes are full of plastic too? Yep. AKA: nylon, acrylic and polyester.
In 2007 polyester overtook cotton as the world's most dominant fibre, with a production rate of over 22 billion tonnes a year. More than 60% of new clothing contains polyester, the most common form of which is known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a plastic derived from crude oil. It's undergone quite the transformation since the classic double-knit suits of the late '60s and you can now find polyester in anything from fleeces to yoga wear and pretty much everything in-between. Clothing brands love polyester in particular because it's cheap to produce, versatile and easy to blend with other fabrics. It's also stain and wrinkle-resistant, and some varieties have sweat-wicking properties which makes it an ideal candidate for activewear.
However, while synthetic fibres have their benefits, there are drawbacks too. Every time you wash an item of clothing made from a plastic-based fibre like polyester, acrylic or nylon, tiny microfibres are released. These fibres are a form of microplastic, small pieces of plastic less than 5 millimetres long. Once described as the biggest environmental problem you've never heard of, awareness around the issue of microfibres is starting to gain traction as part of the wider debate on plastic pollution. A study by Plymouth University in the United Kingdom found that over 700,000 of these tiny fibres could be released in just one wash cycle, and since washing machines and wastewater treatment plants are not adequately equipped to filter them out, many of them inevitably end up in the ocean - and the food chain. As well as being found in the stomachs of fish, microfibres have been found in honey, beer and tap water.
While we don't yet fully understand the implications of this for human health, the devastating impact of plastic on marine life has been well-documented. The powerful imagery contained in the final episode of Blue Planet II served as a wake-up call for many, jolting people into action and encouraging wider conversations on the impact of plastic on our planet. Sir David Attenborough (AKA: everyone's-favourite-nature-documentary-narrator) sums it up:
"For years we thought that the oceans were so vast, and the inhabitants so infinite, that nothing we could do could have an effect upon them. But know we know that was wrong."
The oceans - home to half of all life on earth and the source of around 50% of the oxygen on the planet - are filling up with plastic, and a great deal of it comes from our clothes.
A paper published by Dr Mark Browne in 2011 found that microfibres made up 85% of human-made debris on shorelines across the world, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that we send over half a million tonnes into the ocean every year. According to this report by the IUCN, fibres from textiles and clothing account for 1/3 of primary microplastics found in the ocean. There's no doubt about it, these tiny fibres are causing big problems.
So what can we do? Here's a few simple suggestions:
1. Watch how you wash
Firstly, don't wash unless you need to (a little airing goes a long way...!). When you do need to wash, choosing a lower temperature and a shorter, more gentle cycle will reduce the wear on your clothes and the number of microfibres that are shed with each wash. You could also consider investing in a Guppy Friend, a mesh bag which holds your clothes during the wash cycle and captures any microfibres that are released.
2. Check the label before you buy
You might be surprised how many items contain synthetic fibres. While it's important to remember that all fibres have an environmental impact, if you want to reduce your microfibre footprint consider buying clothes that are made with natural fibres (like cotton, hemp or bamboo) instead.
3. Look for clothes that will stand the test of time
It's all about quality over quantity - buy fewer clothes, that are made to last.
5. Go straight to the source
While we can all take action to lower our microfibre footprint, the fact remains that over half of all new clothing produced is made using synthetic fibres. One of the key findings of a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation was the need to "phase out substances of concern and microfibre release by aligning industry efforts...". Clothing producers have a responsibility to address the issue of pollution caused by their own products. Consider contacting your favourite brands (over social media or by email) and ask what they're doing to combat this problem. Effective industry-wide standards could be another solution; the UK Government recently formed an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Textiles and Fashion, headed by Dr. Lisa Cameron MP. She recently spoke to British Vogue:
“The Blue Planet effect is sweeping across Westminster and it’s time for the fashion industry to take a grip of this movement...there needs to be a strong policy agenda on the use of microfibres."
Contact your MP (or local government representative) to raise the issue of microfibres and ask what they're doing about it. Your voice matters, and the more individuals who speak up, the louder that voice becomes.