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Microplastic pollution in fashion: synthetic vs plant-based textiles

A guide on how to solve the microplastic textiles problem and what are the best plant-based alternatives for your garments

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What fabrics cause microplastic pollution when washed? Microplastic pollution is a very researched topic in the past few years, and even though they are just tiny particles, the problem is a big one. Up to 700,000 fibres can come off our clothes in a typical wash. So here we discover synthetic fibres vs plant-based textiles to make eco-friendly choices with the clothes you wear.

Polyester, nylon, rayon, elastane, viscose, acrylic… these are just some of the synthetic fabrics you’ll see on your clothing labels. From sportswear to night dresses, underwear, pyjamas or office garments; truth is that this textile can be found everywhere. 

Thing is that producing clothes with plastic is cheap for the factories, but definitely not for the environment. The based of these textiles, like other day-to-day plastic items, are all derived from fossil fuels. At extraction, synthetic textiles are more energy-intensive than other fibres (in 2015, polyester produced for clothing emitted 282 billion kg of CO2 – nearly three times more than for cotton.) 

Microplastic pollution in fashion: synthetic fibres vs plant-based textiles
Credit Photo: FashionRevolution.org

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are small pieces of plastic less than 5mm that persist in the environment, particularly in aquatic and marine ecosystems. Sources include microfibres from clothing, microbeads and plastic pellets. Synthetic fibres, such as polyester, nylon and acrylic, are widely used for the fabrics in about 60% of our clothes worldwide. When worn and washed, up to 700,000 fibres can come off our clothes in a typical wash; these microfibres make their way into our rivers and seas pretty fast.

Microplastic pollution in fashion: synthetic fibres vs plant-based textiles
Credit Photo: OurGoodBrands

Today, there are an estimated 1.4 trillion microfibres in our ocean

According to research from Boucher and Friot (2017), textiles and clothing are the largest sources of primary microplastics, accounting for 34.8% of global microplastic pollution

If the fashion industry continues in a business-as-usual scenario (between 2015 and 2050), 22 million tonnes of microfibres will enter our oceans, posing a danger to our marine ecosystems and to human health. [Source: Fashion Revolution]

How are microplastics affecting environmental and human health? 

Marine life, like plankton, can easily mistake these tiny plastics for food. In the meantime, many marine animals and fish depend on plankton as their main food source (for example, the great blue whale). In turn, anything that dines on the plankton will get a dose of plastic pollution. Also, this study revealed that fish also consume nylon and rayon microfibres. 

It’s not hard to realise how our ocean life is now passing microfibres up the food chain. As microplastic pollution is today very present in our oceans and consumed by many of the fish that ends at our dining table, now the microplastic problems go beyond the seven seas and become now a massive problem for human health as well. 

Recent studies have found microplastics even in the most remote parts of the Arctic and also in the preserved Galapagos Islands. Synthetic and semi-synthetic cellulosic fibres (ie. Rayon) have been found on the deep sea according to a 2014 study.

Microfibres have been found in air, rivers, soil, drinking water, beer and table salt. Microplastics are increasingly turning up in the food we eat.

As microplastics are found literally everywhere, we are starting to realise the real impact of fast fashion. This is no longer just a fair work and use of the planet’s resources issue (still important!), now our overconsumption of cheap and fast fashion it’s coming back to us with a likelihood to become a monster in just a few years time. Hopefully, this article is helping to raise awareness of the matter while finding some solutions on how we individually can tackle this problem. 

Microplastic pollution in fashion: synthetic fibres vs plant-based textiles
Credit Photo: FashionRevolution.org

What’s the impact of our plastic-based textiles on microplastic pollution? 

Now, there’s no doubt synthetics have boomed in popularity in recent decades. Their use in fashion doubled between 2000 and 2020, and polyester has overtaken cotton as the world’s most used fibre. 

Here are some facts on the impacts of the use of plastic fibres in our clothing:

Facts on the use of synthetic fibres in fashion

  • 60% of garments are made of polyester, a quantity that has doubled since 2000.
  • Around 65% of sportswear clothes contain plastic fibres
  • Plastic fibres are labelled as Polyester, Elastane (aka LYCRA®), Nylon, Viscose, Rayon, Fleece, Spandex…
  • Some brands use recycled polyester (aka ECONYL®) with other sustainable fibres. But it’s still plastic!
  • Clothing is responsible for releasing 500,000 tonnes of microfibre pollution on the oceans EVERY YEAR!!

So let’s dig deeper into what are the textiles releasing microplastics every time we wash and dispose of our clothes so that we can move to more sustainable fashion trends.

FASHION TEXTILES: SYNTHETIC VS PLANT-BASED FIBRES

Microplastic pollution in fashion: synthetic fibres vs plant-based textiles
Credit Photo: OurGoodBrands

What are the sythetic textiles releasing microplastics into our waterways?

Synthetic fabrics are popular in the fashion industry because they are widely available, durable, high resistance, lightweight and of course, cheap. 

So that you can read the label next time you acquire a new fashion garment item, this is the list of fabrics that cause microplastic pollution:

  • Polyester
  • Elastane (LYCRA®)
  • ECONYL® 
  • Nylon
  • Acrylic
  • Viscose
  • Rayon
  • Fleece
  • Microfleece
  • Spandex
  • Rayon
  • Acetate

Best sustainable, plant-based and natural alternatives to plastic fabrics?

Truth is that fashion or any other type of consumption, especially new products, will likely not get a chance to be sustainable. Also, while we keep researching on fashion’s microplastic pollution impact, today there haven’t been found long-term solutions. The best way we individuals can take this matter into our own hands is to avoid purchasing clothing made from synthetic fibres and use plant-based textiles instead.

Starting to purchase clothing made of natural fibres is the best initial course of action to fight against microfibre pollution caused by fashion. Realistically, it’s more likely you still have loads of garments in your wardrobe that use polyester and other synthetic fibres, and this is why towards the end of this article we go through some tips on how to wash your synthetic clothes safely. 

When it comes to buying swimwear, activewear or yoga wear, there are loads of brands that still use synthetic fibres, even though they may claim to be sustainable based on the fact that they use ECONYL® (made out of recycled plastics, yes, but still plastic!). In these cases, you should aim to purchase the most eco-friendly and ethical product that you can afford and make sure to use laundry bags or a laundry ball when washing.

Some ethical and sustainable brands have started to come up with very smart ways to produce activewear without the use of synthetic. For example, TRIPULSE uses Tencel® for the long and short leggings, which is a natural fibre solution from controlled forests, with the advantage that’s naturally anti-bacterial, and perfect for sweaty actions!

So here is a list of more sustainable fibres (usually they are also ethically made and tick off loads of environmental standards that synthetics don’t!) you should be looking up on labels the next time you purchase a new fashion item:

  • Tencel®
  • Modal
  • Lyocell
  • Cotton
  • Hemp
  • Linen
  • Jute
  • Bamboo
  • Flax
  • Jute
  • Linen
  • Wool
  • Cashmere
  • Silk

MICROPLASTIC POLLUTION SOLUTIONS IN FASHION

How much we wash: the global impact

The use of a natural and more organic laundry detergent is another important step to make. Besides the harsh chemicals from traditional soaps are more likely to break down the fibres as well as the garments overall lifecycle, detergents wastewater also makes its way to our waterways.

With the average household washing 7.4 loads per week (about 50 pounds or 22 kilograms of laundry). If we put this into perspective, just US consumers wash more than 660 million loads every week. This equals about 35 billion wash loads a year, totalling 100 million tons of clothes. That translates to 1,000 wash loads started in the United States every second of every day. Geeez!!

Laundry’s wastewater not just uses the water resource but also comes with additional energy (heat), lint, soil, dyes, finishing agents, and other chemicals from detergents AND the microplastics as already discussed!

Microplastic pollution in fashion: synthetic fibres vs plant-based textiles
Credit Photo: @louisemccurdy & @bamford_alex for @planetcare.solutions

Changing to a natural toxin-free detergent

Now, why we should swap to a toxin-free zero waste detergent is pretty straightforward. 

Aside from the disastrous environmental consequences. 

What about the lifecycle of clothes? Clothing manufacturers anticipate a life expectancy of 50 washings for each garment. The time span covered by these 50 launderings varies widely from less than a year for products that get washed regularly. 

As usual, choosing eco-friendly brings a ripple effect of positive ways to reduce our carbon footprint. In this case, if we extend our garments life by just 9 months we could save up to 22% of the carbon footprint. Altogether, you will save plenty of money both in doing the laundry and purchasing new clothes, since they will last longer.

You can also use a Cora Ball, a Guppy Bag or a self-installed washing machine filter to capture microfibres from your clothing. The Cora Ball and Lint LUV-R (an install yourself washing machine filter) have been shown to reduce the number of microfibres in wastewater by an average of 26% and 87%, respectively. Although this is not enough to solve the problem, it is still a little action we all can take to avoid this drastic increase in the number of microplastics entering our waterways.

11 Zero waste detergents & DIY toxin-free laundry alternatives

Eco-friendly tips on how to wash our clothes 

To support the microplastic pollution cause when you are washing your laundry, here we list a few quick eco-friendly habits:

1. Wash at low temperatures

Washing your garments with low temperatures is less aggressive, therefore less likely to release microplastics.

2. Remedies to stop releasing microplastics

Use a Guppy Bag or Coraball in your washing machine as they collect a good percentage of microfibres that are shed from garments on each laundry cycle.

3. Full your washing

A full washing machine is more environmentally friendly (fewer loads are needed) but it also turns out to reduce the friction between items and therefore save some microplastic to be shed from your clothes.

4. Reduce spin speeds

A fast spin risks more plastics shedding, which also reduces the lifecycle of your clothes altogether.

5. Air dry rather than tumble dry

The most eco-friendly way to dry your clothes is by hanging them out to air dry. Tumble drying is definitely a more aggressive practice that causes your clothes to shed more plastic.

6. Use a front-loading washing machine

Tests show that top-loading washing machines probably release more plastic fibres.

7. Buy fewer fleeces

Polyester fleece is been found to be one of the biggest emitters of microfibres. Consider buying natural woollen fleece instead of synthetic fibre.

8. Keep your clothes for longer

Buy higher quality clothes that last is the ultimate rule to make sustainable fashion choices. Furthermore, your clothes are likely to shed more plastic in the first few washes, so the longer you keep a garment, the less amount of plastic you’re sending into the environment. 

9. Choose eco-friendlier and plant-based fabrics for your clothes

Your choice of any new garments you buy should match on the list of sustainable and plant-based fibres: Tencel®, Modal, Lyocell, Cotton, Hemp, Linen, Jute, Bamboo, Flax, Jute, Linen, Wool, Cashmere, Silk

10. Use toxin-free & natural detergents

Your choice of eco-friendlier laundry detergents is another important aspect. Here’s a quick list of brands:

Microplastic pollution in fashion: synthetic fibres vs plant-based textiles

Your role to play: policymakers, brands, and consumers

We are FashionRevolution.org supporters. Therefore we are going to close this article to show a way in which we can adopt more sustainable practices altogether to but a break on the microplastic pollution problem that comes with fashion consumption. 

Policymakers can help discourage poor practice and incentivise better approaches. We are asking the government to explore a per-item ‘plastics tax’ on clothing imported into or produced in the UK containing virgin plastics, to introduce the Extended Producer Responsibility commitments, which are currently being discussed in a Defra consultation. We’d also like them to explore routes for supporting businesses that take steps towards sustainable business models, such as reviewing VAT rates on repair services.

Fast fashion brands should explore new ways to promote second-hand clothing following the model of Depop and Asos’ ‘marketplace’, alongside different business models, such as rental and repair services. We would like to see brands publish statistics on how much plastic goes into their clothing, as part of greater transparency reporting about their social and environmental impacts and commitments.

Citizens can help make a change by thinking differently about their clothing and committing to buying less and buying better – shopping for more durable garments, making fewer impulse purchases as well as sharing, repairing and caring for their current clothing.

After all, the most sustainable garment is the thing you already own.

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