Did you know that around 64% of new fabrics today are made out of plastic. They contain materials such as polyester, nylon, acrylic and polyamide.
Have you read PART 1 of this series?
Each time we wash these materials they shed millions of plastic microfibres, it’s estimated that each load of washing could shed up to 17 million tiny plastic fibres! These fibres drain out of our washing machines, pass through wastewater treatment centres and eventually end up in the sea. Chemicals in the sea are found to collect on these plastic particles, which are then eaten by sea creatures and passed up the food chain until eventually ending up in our seafood. So one could suggest that we are eating parts of our own clothes if you eat fish, however research is being done to see whether or not these fibres harm human when eaten.
It’s probably not something you’ve ever thought about, eating tiny parts of clothing does not sound all that good.
Plastic has been the talk of town in the last year or so with people finally realising the true harm of it from the amount of documentary’s made about it. The term microfibre is used a lot.
A microfibre is defined as a tiny piece of plastic thread, thinner than a human hair so smaller than 5mm. This can include bits of broken down plastic bottles and bags, pieces that wear away from tyres while driving, microbeads in cosmetics, paint from buildings, road markings etc. Most of them derive from polyester which is most commonly found in fleeces because it’s light, warm and quick drying.
They may be small but they can absorb high concentrations of poisonous substances including now banned ones which were used on products in the past and have ended up in the oceans. These can pose a threat to aquatic life.
You may have seen the David Attenborough documentary Blue Planet 2 which touches on plastic in the ocean. If you haven’t seen it then I would definitely recommend adding it to your lockdown TV list.
Synthetic fibres arrived with nylons in the late 1930s with polyester being invented in the 1940s, they were developed to mimic natural fibres but adding more functionality. Polyester is the generalised term for any fabric or textile made using polyester yarns or fibres, which became popular in the 1970s for being very loud and shiny and built up a reputation for being a cheap and uncomfortable fabric. We all know the 70s look that they are on about.
The characteristics of pure polyester are that it’s durable, resistant to chemicals, stretching and wrinkling, the fibres are strong yet lightweight, it’s easily dyed, retains it’s shape well, quick drying and it’s easy to look after. However it’s not breathable, the moisture absorption is low, it’s flammable and is not biodegradable as it’s an oil based plastic. Pure polyester is also prone to static build up which is why it is commonly combined with cotton to create a polycotton fabric making it strong, durable, wrinkle resistant and breathable.
Polyester is made from part petroleum which comes from crude oil. This has many environmental impacts because the oil manufacturing industry is the worlds largest pollutant. Producing it may have a lower environmental impact than natural fibre production in terms of water usage and wastewater however the energy used to produce polyester and the greenhouse gases released make it a high-impact process. Since 1980 the production of polyester has multiplied 10 times with 53.7 million tonnes being made in 2017. This accounts for 51% of all global fibre production.
A big issue is that many people may not even know that their clothes are in fact full of plastic because you know exactly what a plastic bottle is made of when you look at it, but you can’t always tell with clothing even though the plastic in it is just as toxic as the bottle. Going back to just using cotton could potentially alleviate the plastic problem but it still has negative affects on the environment and it’s not as functional because it doesn’t repel sweat or keep out the rain.
Plastic has always been celebrated for it’s utility, cheap cost and disposability. Throwaway living was celebrated in the past but now we are paying the consequences for that.
Nowadays many companies are making clothing out of recycled plastic bottles which is amazing but it still sheds microplastics when washed and worn. All these tiny microplastics are constantly recirculating in the environment as small particles that can be found all the over the world even in places like the Arctic.
We throw away an estimated 48 million tonnes of clothing, with 75% of that ending up in landfill and around 1% of that being recycled. It is a useful way to help prevent pollution, but unfortunately not plastic because it is delaying the inevitable escape of the pollutants into the environment. It uses 50-80% less energy, does reduce the need for primary extraction of crude oil and can cut the amount of clothing sent to landfill. However every time it’s reheated for recycling it degrades which means that it can’t be used indefinitely and it still ultimately leads to microplastics ending up in the environment. Furthermore, all the other plastics still in circulation are causing damage.
By sorting and processing old plastic into shreds and then turning them back into chips, they could be spun back into yarn. But there are some little details on clothing that it’s reported are proving difficult to find replacements for in order to reduce virgin plastic. These are clothing labels sewn into clothes, zips, buttons and elastic being the major one.
Another issue is that poly-cotton fabrics can’t be recycled because the fibres can’t be separated. Polyester typically gets recycled and then used in a new polycotton fabric but then once again it can’t be recycled, so this isn’t really a sustainable method.
All this plastic is not just in clothing, there’s so much in the packaging! I used to work in a clothing store so when the delivery boxes arrived I saw tops that were individually wrapped in plastic bags when they could have all been put into one bag. The amount of waste that was produced every week was insane and it was only a small shop so imagine the packaging waste from huge stores!
So at the moment we just don’t have a really sustainable option for tackling the plastic crisis. While recycling is a great temporary solution, we definitely will need another solution in the future because something needs to be done about all that plastic that’s already out there in landfill and floating in the ocean to dispose of it completely.
I feel like all of this sounds very scientific but it’s important to know the facts and figures and, most importantly, the truth.
I hope that this has made you think about what your clothes are made of and maybe make you want to shop more sustainably. I love secondhand clothing because buying it means that no new resources were needed. We have a finite amount of resources on this planet so why not use what we have instead of buying new stuff?
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