Take a peek into your closet – have you ever stopped to think about the plastic that might be hiding in your wardrobe? What are most of your clothes made of — are they synthetic or natural fibers? Do they have an elastic waistband or stretch material? Do they have plastic snaps, buttons, or zippers? It turns out there is a surprising amount of plastic in our clothes and it has a potentially larger impact on the environment than even straws or other single use plastics!
Types of Fabric
How often do you look at the fibre content in the label on your clothes? I grew up buying fabric and sewing and realized early on that I didn’t like the feel of polyester or acrylic, but rather gravitated to wool and cotton. However, sometimes it’s not that easy! The garments we purchase are often a mix of materials, and it can be hard to know what the names on the label mean. Below is a list of widely available materials that are often found in our clothing:
- Natural fibres: such as cotton, wool, and silk degrade over time and will, in time, compost back into base materials
- Rayon: generally made of some sort of processed plant material and is known as the first man-made fibre
- Nylon: underlying material is petroleum and is non-biodegradable, and requires a lot of energy to produce
- Polyester: same material as plastic bottles, the underlying material is petroleum
- Elastane: made of polyester and polyurethane, and is non-biodegradeable
- Acrylic: key ingredient is a carcinogen and is not readily biodegradeable
How Plastic in Our Clothing Impacts the Environment
Many studies have now documented that, whenever we do laundry, plastic particles are released from our synthetic fibre clothing. Some of these fibres are captured in wastewater plants however many make it through these processes. The graph below gives an idea of how many fibres can be released in one load of wash:
Shockingly, these small plastic fibres have made it all around the globe, permeating every environment and entering our food chain.
Seemingly, wherever scientists look, they’re finding plastic fibers contaminating the environment. Often, plastic textile fibers are the dominant source of plastic pollution found in surveys. Plastic fibers have been found in the sediment surrounding beaches, in mangrove groves, and in Arctic ice — even in products we eat and drink. “The average person ingests over 5,800 particles of synthetic debris” a year, a recent paper in PLOS finds. And most of those particles are plastic fibers.https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/9/19/17800654/clothes-plastic-pollution-polyester-washing-machine
Things You Can Do to Reduce Plastic Impacts from Clothing
Fortunately there are many simple and budget-friendly actions we can take to reduce the impact of plastic in our clothing!
- Change up your laundry routine
- Shop second-hand – take part in #SecondHandSeptember
- Buy fewer clothes
- Buy clothing with natural fibres — however this can be expensive, or, particularly in the case of cotton, potentially damaging to the environment due to how water-intensive it is to farm
- Spring for eco-friendly brands as budget allows
- Read our past posts on sustainable clothing brands to learn about some inspiring design innovators!
How to you bring sustainability into your wardrobe?