When we think about reducing plastic use, our clothes might not be the first thing that we think about. But synthetic clothing is one of the biggest contributors to micro-plastic pollution. Plastic in the form of packaging is not the only thing we have to worry about. Synthetic (man-made) fibres are 'plastics' too.
You might be surprised to learn that around 64% of the world's textiles are made from plastics. Are you among the 45% of people who don't realize they are wearing plastic everyday? If so, you should know that making different decisions about what you wear will have a far bigger impact on reducing plastic pollution than simply swapping out a few plastic products in your kitchen, or making the switch to reusable bags, cups, bottles and straws.
Which Fabrics are Plastics?
Looking at the labels on your clothes is important. It will give you a lot of useful information about whether or not they will be the right ones to buy. One key thing to look at, of course, is the type of fabric from which the garments are made.
Synthetic (plastic) fabrics include:
- lycra/ spandex/ elastane
When choosing new clothes (or picking up second hand ones) it is important to understand that these are plastic products. And there are plenty of reasons to avoid them. Another thing to think about is that these fibres are also used in many other products we purchase for our homes – carpets and rugs, curtains, cushions, bedding and more... reducing plastic use and truly tackling our plastic problem means moving beyond simple packaging and product swaps, and thinking more deeply about all the plastics we bring into our homes.
Why Avoid Plastic Textiles?
Synthetic fabrics cause environmental harm in a range of different ways.
- Synthetic fabrics, like polyester, nylon, acrylic, etc. are made from fossil fuels, so unless recycled, require these to be drawn from the ground – contributing to global warming.
- What is more, synthetic fabrics also require immense amounts of energy to create. This usually releases yet more carbon into the environment.
- Making these fabrics also releases other pollutants into land, waterways and oceans.
You might think that you can avoid the environmental harm of synthetic clothing by buying or sourcing second hand clothes. And this is certainly preferable. If you cannot find an alternative natural fibre, then choosing synthetic fabrics with a high proportion of recycled content is also preferable to buying those made from virgin material.
But it is important to understand that even recycled or second hand synthetic clothes come at a cost.
- While we use them, synthetic fabrics continue to pollute. Every time we wash synthetic clothes, micro-particles of plastic are washed down the drain. This means that they contribute to the huge plastic pollution problem on our planet.
- What is more, scientists have discovered that plastic clothing and other plastic textiles shed microfibres during normal use, as well as when washed. So there really is no escaping the micro-plastic pollution these sorts of clothing generate.
- Finally, at the end of their useful lives, synthetic clothes will not biodegrade. They will stick around in the environment causing problems for years to come. Clothing made from recycled plastic may be better than that made from virgin plastic. But it is important to understand that this clothing will not itself be recyclable at the end of its useful life, so will still pose a waste problem.
The best thing we can possibly do is to try to break our reliance on plastics in the fashion industry. We should all try to choose natural fabrics like, for example:
- organic cotton
- organic linen
- nettle fabrics
- sustainable wool
The more we can choose these fabrics for daily use, the less harm we will be doing. Plastic in the fashion industry is not something that will be going away any time soon. But as consumers, we can help change the industry through what we choose to buy – and what we choose not to. When it comes to changing the world, each of us has more power than it often appears.
Refuse to buy plastic clothes, reduce consumption of clothes in general (and say no to fast fashion), reuse those clothes we already own for as long as possible (and other old clothes), repair natural clothes to keep them going longer, and recycle clothing when it is time to get rid of it (making sure we make choices that mean clothes can be recycled or will rot).