The Biggest Environmental Problem You've Never Heard Of, But Daily Contribute To...

The Biggest Environmental Problem You've Never Heard Of, But Daily Contribute To...

Charlie Bradley Ross Thursday, 2 June 2016

In my previous article, we saw how Emma Watson's gorgeous dress at the Met Gala Ball drew attention to the global problem of plastic pollution. Made from recycled plastic bottles, it was showcased as an innovative solution to our big plastic problem. However, does making clothes out of plastic actually address the current issue or further contribute to it? Never one to shy away from a sustainable conundrum, I wanted to explore more.

#plasticpollution in the #sea from your clothing!

My intrigue was piqued by a post from The Story of Stuff Project that had a different perspective. They suggested that while Emma Watson did indeed raise awareness about the plastic pollution problem, her solution was far from ideal. This is because making clothing out of plastic (even if it is reusing it) still contributes to plastic pollution. Let me explain.

plastic pollution in the sea

How Do Synthetic Clothes Pollute The Oceans?

We all know that our oceans are polluted by plastic waste from different sources. However, how many of us know that washing synthetic clothes contributes to this problem in a big way? The fact is that every time we wash a piece of synthetic clothing almost 1900 microfibres are shed, which make their way into our water bodies.

Washing one piece of synthetic clothing sheds almost 1900 microfibres into our water!

Ecologist Mark Browne discovered that 85% of the pollutants in the shorelines around the world were microfibres derived from clothing! Knowing that 1900 microfibres are shed per item per wash, this suddenly doesn't come as a surprise. With synthetic garments being durable and versatile, they are bound to be washed several times during their lifetime. So, we can easily imagine the amount of plastic filaments that will be shed and accumulate in the oceans as a result. I wrote more about the environmental impact of washing clothes in this article and the solutions designers can use to prevent this here.


The Arguments For & Against Recycled Plastic Clothing

  • Recycled or not, when we wash synthetic fabrics, tiny plastic fibres are shed. These are ingested by aquatic organisms and enter the food chain. By the time it reaches us, the toxicity levels are alarmingly high. The more plastic is used in clothes, the more plastic accumulates in our food chain.
  • On the other hand, think of how it would be if large empty plastic bottles were just sitting in landfill due to a lack of recycling options. Plastic NEVER breaks down and when sat in landfills they release heavy metals, including the carcinogenic antimony, and other additives into soil and groundwater. The consequences lead to even larger quantities of plastic leaching into our water systems. And if they are disposed of in an alternate way, such as being burned for energy, the carcinogenic chemicals are released into the air instead. Recycled polyester fabrics at least take these larger waste-plastic items out of landfill and puts them to good use.
  • Recycled polyester has so many other benefits and it's much better for the environment than regular polyester.
  • What are the alternatives to synthetics? Contrary to popular belief, there are huge environmental implications for cotton production - do these outweigh the risk to our oceans?

If we look at both sides of the argument objectively, it is difficult to decide which is the lesser of the two evils: leaving plastic bottles as they are or reusing them in clothing. As with many sustainability issues there are two sides to this story.

Using Plastics Already In the Sea

In my previous article, we looked at another fascinating project, the designer collection “RAW for Oceans”, offering a solution that uses the plastic that is already in the oceans.

Raw Oceans

The project is a collaborative effort by Bionic Yarn, an NYC company that makes fabric from plastic in the oceans, and Pharrell William's designer clothing company G-Star RAW. The denim collection is woven with yarn made from ocean plastic. The yarn that makes up the fabric of this collection has three layers. The middle layer is 45% recycled plastic material from the oceans. This plastic is woven with other fibres like cotton, wool and nylon to create the desired feel of actual denim.

Pharrell Williams

So, is this the ideal, sustainable solution to the fashion-conscious? In one sense it does remove large swathes of plastic from the sea, but we still have the same problem: when these garments are washed the microfibre particles end up back in the ocean! The ideal solution would be for G-Star (or anyone!) to reclaim the plastic microfibres from the sea, as well as big chunky bottles and other debris. Not only does Bionic Yarn not use microfibres, there's no mention if it will not release or at least lower the amount of rPET microfibres released per wash. As I mentioned, the rPET fibre is encased within a cotton outer, so this may prevent microfibres escaping, but I'm certainly not able to confirm this... and it doesn't sound hopeful! There's more about this here on this article from Out Lie Spy.

Unfortunately, when it comes to fighting against textile microfibres in our oceans, rivers and lakes, the "washing" part is still key. The washing accounts for 30% of a garments ecological footprint. I'm yet to find anyone who can confirm, but I certainly hope that G-Star highlights the washing impact with every garment. As you may have read in my article on raw denim, denim should not be water washed often anyway - here's hoping G-Star let's their customers know that.

Filtering System

Unless the issue of microfibres in our oceans is addressed promptly and efficiently, the damage will keep getting worse. Equally significant is the damage caused by microbeads, another close contender to microfibres in clogging up our oceans with plastic.

Microbeads are tiny beads of plastic present in many daily products we use, including toothpaste and face wash. Often added for cosmetic purposes, they are washed down our drains and bypass filtering systems. These toxic little beads end up in the sea and later in our food chain.

Micro beads

Together microfibres and microbeads elevate the plastic toxicity levels in our water systems. A high-efficiency filtration system that captures the minuscule plastic fibres and microbeads from our drains or in the water filtration before it reaches the sea would be an ideal solution to stop plastic from entering our oceans. Such an efficient system doesn't exist today.

What Should We Do?

As with so many environmental solutions there is not one quick fix or simple answer to this question. No fabric is perfect, but some do have less of an impact that others. Recycled polyester is a great, versatile fabric that uses up a great deal of waste, it's much better for the environment that virgin polyester (as that ends up in the sea too!). Furthermore, ways of dyeing it like sublimation printing are much more environmentally friendly than screen printing or dyeing which creates chemical pollution.

But, when microfibres may end up in the sea, how about lessening that impact by making garments that require much less washing?

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The pros and cons of #recycledpolyester