Is your wardrobe a haven for plastic? We take a look at how the invisible plastic in low quality synthetic clothing is polluting the planet.
‘Oceans are under threat now as never before in human history,’ was the chilling warning from Sir David Attenborough at the end of the BBC’s Blue Planet II series, as images of once pristine beaches now strewn with plastic debris and footage of innocent marine life plagued by our waste shocked audiences and fuelled the global war on plastic pollution.
The environmental impact of our ever-growing consumption of single-use plastic was there for all to see, washed up on our beaches and filling our news feeds. But there’s another plastic ocean polluter at large that is less obvious – and it is hidden in our clothes.
Since Blue Planet II was first aired a year ago, a lot has happened in the war against plastics (with a long way still to go). We’ve seen global brands react by announcing phase outs of plastic packaging, and just this week a consortium of brands that produce 20% of all plastic packaging on the globe have signed a New Plastics Economy Global Commitment to ‘eradicate plastic waste and pollution at the source’. Governments are also starting to pay attention, with the EU Parliament last week proposing a ban on certain single-use plastic items and a plastic tax being introduced in the UK.
But one thing yet to be resolved is microfibres – tiny strands of microscopic plastic that are shed from synthetic materials such as polyester, nylon and acrylic during washing cycles. The fibres, less than 5mm in length, are so small that they pass through washing machine and wastewater filters, ultimately ending up in lakes, rivers and seas, where they absorb toxic chemicals and are consumed by marine life before entering the food chain. Microplastics been found in shellfish, salt, honey, beer and more recently humans, potentially causing unknown long-term health impact.
Why have microfibres become such a problem? Today, more than 60% of clothing contains synthetic materials and fibres, fuelled by a fast fashion culture that demands clothes be made quicker and cheaper. Unable to keep up with demand using natural fibres such as wool and cotton, the fashion industry looked to man-made solutions.
One such solution was polyester – invented in the 1950s and made from crude oil, it quickly became a fashion industry staple and, in 2007, polyester surpassed cotton as the world’s most dominant fibre.
But with each wash a single synthetic garment can shed up to 1,900 fibres, and studies estimate that up to 35% of the 1.5 million tonnes of microplastics that are released into the ocean every year are the result of washing synthetic textiles – equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles. This makes the synthetic textile industry the single largest source of microplastics in the ocean.
With estimations warning that by 2050 there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish, it’s time to reconsider the way we buy, wear and wash our clothes if we’re going to win the battle against plastic pollution.
So, how can you make a difference?
Before you buy an item, it’s always worth asking – is there plastic in this? Look out for materials like polyester and acrylic on care labels and avoid lower quality fast fashion garments as much as possible. See our tips for where to start when it comes to dressing ethically.
Choose Natural Fibres
Natural fibres, such as wool, provide a microfibre-free alternative to synthetics and are biodegradable – even in water. See our guide to caring for wool.
For clothing that does contain synthetic fibres, reduce how often the garment is washed. The level of microfibre shedding varies from consumer to consumer depending on washing machines and laundry habits – refrain from high-heat or vigorous washing and use less detergent.
Use a GuppyFriend Washing Bag or Cora Ball
GuppyFriend laundry bags are designed to reduce fibre shedding and protect your clothes during washing, while filtering the fibres that do break. Similarly, the Cora Ball collects microfibers into fuzz we can see, inspired by the way coral filters the ocean. Both options collect microfibres released from your clothing so that you can dispose of them without it entering into the water streams.
Read more about curating a more sustainable wardrobe.