The Great Wave of Synthetic (Plastic) Clothing Pollution

Recent upcycling trend: Does it do more harm than good?

While many clothing companies are using recycled fishing nets and plastic bottles as a way to conserve and reduce waste, research indicates that the plastic might ultimately end up in the oceans anyway – and in a form that’s even more likely to cause problems.

A recent trend led by companies like Adidas and Stella McCartney to reduce plastic waste by recycling it into fashion products is raising some questions. While it is awesome to raise awareness and make caring about plastic pollution fashionable, it is also misleading, because synthetic clothing will end up washed back into oceans anyway and in a form which is even more likely to cause harm. Let me explain why and how in this blog.

Problem 1: More synthetic microfibers than plankton

Recyced Polyester – upcycled plastic waste from oceans

Recycled Nylon/ Econyl – upcycled discarded fishing nets

When washing clothing made from synthetic fibres – such as polyester, spandex, acrylic, PVC, nylon and fleece – each wash releases around 700,000 microfibers to our lakes, rivers, seas and oceans. Microfibers are so small (less than five millimetres in length) that they are not caught by the wastewater treatment plants and consequently enter our natural waterways.

Recent evidence shows microfiber pollution pervading terrestrial environments and the atmosphere as well. Although soil systems may be the primary receptors of microfibers, microfiber distribution in aquatic systems is currently the best understood and thus the focus of this article. Aquatic organisms consume microfibers throughout the food chain and these particles have been found to have a physical and chemical impact, resulting in starvation and reproductive consequences in species. Microfibers have also been found in marine species and tap water directly consumed by humans, the effects of which are unknown.

Problem 2: Recycling once and then what?

With about 95% of clothing ending up in landfills and incinerators at some point in its life – the end of life for clothing made from upcycled plastic waste has to be considered. Currently less than 1% of clothes from both synthetic and natural fabrics is being recycled.

Currently the ability to turn old textiles into the new textiles has been extremely limited due to the challenges of blended fibres, dyes and other contaminants from the initial production process. The widespread use of blends, such as cotton mixed with polyester (which is used in about 85% of all textiles used globally today), complicates matters because fibres need to be separated before they can be reused. That’s a separate challenge companies are still working to overcome.

There are some plans in the EU to make clothing companies responsible for their products in a circular way. This is already the case for electronics companies, which are responsible for collecting and recycling consumer’s unwanted products. However, until such laws are in place, clothing companies are free to reap the profits and scarce resources without a responsibility for the waste they create. Therefore, recycling plastic waste from our oceans without the ongoing recycling plan is not such an achievement after all.

Recent upcycling trend: Does it do more harm than good?

I cannot describe enough how sad I find the non-biodegradable waste in our forests, waterways and on roadsides. News about the discovery of new floating plastic islands and the wildlife injecting plastics truly breaks my heart. Therefore, I am all for collecting plastic waste from where it does not belong. Global plastic production has increased from 2 to 300 million tonnes since the 1950s and continues to rise, making for an increasingly painful issue screaming to be solved. Moreover, in 40 years since plastic recycling was introduced worldwide we at best recycle 9% of what gets into a recycling bin. And we recycled that only once. Consequently, perhaps choosing better biodegradable ingredients in the first place instead of the plastic ones is the way to go.

Don’t get me wrong, I do agree that upcycling plastic waste from our oceans into synthetic fibres is better than using virgin synthetic fibre to produce clothes. However, if clothing companies cannot ensure suitable washing, repair and recycling processes, I really don’t think the PR and media hype surrounding the use of ocean plastic for clothing is as great as it’s made out to be.

Moreover, I think perhaps some products are simply more suited to being upcycled from the plastic waste than others. Dell’s recent initiative to use plastic ocean waste for computer packaging is a good example of this. Such product does not require washing, thus does not release thousands of plastic microfibers into our waterways with each wash, and more than that – is fully recyclable (once).

Solutions: What can we do today to improve the situation?

1) Choose clothing made from natural textile fibres such as linen, hemp, tencel, organic cotton and food waste fibres. At Amberoot we do not sell plastic clothing, thus if interested in natural fabric range see here. It is very hard to find 100% natural fabric garments, that is why we curated the range for people not wanting to contribute to plastic pollution.

2) When washing:

  • Use products catching microfibers, such as a GuppyFriend Washing Bag.
  • Install a permanent washing machine filter like Wexco’s Filtrol 160 (requires some plumbing expertise).
  • Choose a front load washing machine instead of a top load, since research shows they release 5 times less microfibers.
  • Consider using waterless washing machines, such as Tersus or Xeros.

3) Demand more accountability, responsibility and quality from fashion brands and policy makers by signing these petitions:

The future I'd like to see

I’m super excited to tell you about an under-reported and great sustainability example in the apparel space. Luxury brand Salvatore Ferragamo is not usually the one being associated or boasting about sustainability. However, together with the Alessi’s cult designer Mario Trimarchi they have created a collection using a new orange fibre, making Ferragamo–a traditional luxury fashion house–the first brand to brave this new fiber in their latest collection. The orange fibre is biodegradable and created from the citrus juice by-products which would otherwise be wasted. That’s the nature loving future that I’d love to see more of!

If you have any observations or thoughts about the topic – please do drop me a line – I’d love to hear from you!

Big Picture | Microfibers | plastic waste

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