Updated: Jun 26, 2021
If we were to take a look at our closet, we would never expect that plastic is woven into most of the clothing that we wear everyday. About two-thirds of the clothes that exist worldwide are made from synthetic fibers, most of which are made from plastic. Synthetic fibers, including polyester, acrylic and nylon, are man-made, plastic-based fibers that are produced from oil. Polyester is one of the most commonly-used synthetic fibers and it has come to dominate 65% of the global fiber market share. Unfortunately, the prominent use of synthetic fibers in clothing has presented detrimental effects on the environment.
Clothing is one of the largest sources of microplastics, which are plastic particles that are less than 5mm in diameter. When synthetic textiles are washed, they release plastic microfibers that go down the drain and travel through the sewage system. If they aren’t collected by wastewater treatment plants, these miniscule strands of fiber flow into waterways and eventually reach the ocean. Every year, half a million tons of microfibers from synthetic textiles are released into the ocean, accounting for over a third of microplastic pollution worldwide. This rapid accumulation of microplastics in our oceans poses a threat to the environment and aquatic species. As microplastics break down in the ocean, they release potent greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Overtime, microplastics emit more and more greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change. Microplastics not only exacerbate climate change, but they threaten the health of the marine environment. When consumed by aquatic species, these tiny plastic fibers bioaccumulate in the food chain negatively impacting feeding behavior, reproduction, and larval development.
In a study published by the Nature Communications Journal, microplastics from synthetic textiles were found in some of the most remote places on the Earth including the Arctic Ocean and the North Pole. The severity and widespread reach of microfiber pollution demonstrates how our actions are interconnected with the health of natural and marine environments. Dr. Peter S. Ross, the author of the study, said that the Arctic is linked “to our homes and to our laundry and our shopping habits.” Since our everyday habits can have an extensive impact on the environment, it is vital that we begin to make conscious choices to protect our land and waterways. To learn more about how microplastics move through and affect the marine environment, read one of our previous blog posts here!
Ultimately, transforming the textile industry into a sustainable system that has a minimal impact on our land and seascapes will require large-scale, systemic changes. Stakeholders across the industry including governments, brands, and consumers will need to collaborate in a concerted effort to fundamentally change the way textiles are designed, produced, and distributed. Individuals, like you, can contribute to this systemic change by speaking to your government representatives, supporting and volunteering for environmental-driven organizations in the textile sphere, and voting with your dollars. At an individual level, you can also minimize the impact of your clothing use by taking these three steps recommended by STOP Micro Waste, a nonprofit organization in Germany:
Wash your clothes less and when you do so, use short cycles and cold water to reduce microfiber shedding.
Use liquid detergent and fabric softener to reduce the friction between clothing.
Buy less! When you do purchase new clothes, check the label and look for clothing that is made from natural fibers like cotton, wool, or linen.
In the comments below, share what you will do to minimize the environmental impact of synthetic textiles! Want to read more about sustainability and the fashion industry? Check out these posts: