Can Recycled Plastic Clothing Do More Harm Than Good?

It seems like a good idea, but is recycled plastic clothing doing more harm than good?

By Chere Di Boscio

It seems the oceans have become a new textile  hunting ground  for many top brands including Adidas, G-Star Raw, Patagonia  and others. These companies have been creating clothing from plastics collected from the oceans, which is then recycled into fibres. Adidas, for example, has combined Ocean Plastics with a zero waste 3D-printing technique  to manufacture a stylish athletic shoe as part of their partnership with Parley for the Oceans, an initiative that encourages repurposing ocean waste and raising awareness of our increasingly dire plastics problems.

Owner of Bionic Yarn, a textile company that bases its production on reclaimed ocean plastics, Pharrell Williams  has launched his third collection with G-Star RAW, which features urban streetwear  made from this innovative fabric. The line includes perfectly cut jeans,  jackets, T-shirts and hoodies – none of which you would imagine ever existed in plastic form at one point, but they did.

Yet another eco-minded fashion label using recycled plastics is Outerknown, launched by surfer legend Kelly Slater, who designed a line of 100% recycled fibre clothing  made from reclaimed fishing nets. His motivation is noble: “Single-use plastics all through the ocean, degrading, turning into little bits that are all eaten by the sea life, and they’re dying because their stomachs are full of stuff,” Slater said in an interview with CNN. But little did he know that the very clothing he was creating with the aim of ending such pollution may well be exacerbating it.

why recycled plastic clothing does more harm than good

Teeny Particles

So, can recycled plastic clothing do more harm than good?

Researchers have found that these well intended brands may be doing more harm than good by introducing recycled plastic clothing  into the wash cycle. Apparently, microfibers – tiny synthetic threads less than 1 mm in size – may actually be the  biggest source of plastic in the ocean. And many of them may come from simply washing synthetic clothing.

Earth Island reports that Dr. Mark Browne, an ecologist and postdoctoral fellow at the National Center of Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, California, states  that every time a synthetic garment – that is, anything made from non-organic fibres – goes through the spin and rinse cycle in a washing machine, it sheds a large number of plastic fibers.

Most washing machines don’t have the right filters to trap these miniscule microfibers, and neither do sewage plants that are responsible for removing contaminants. So every time the water drains from a washing machine, plastic filaments are swept through the sewers and eventually end up in the ocean.

In 2011, Browne published a paper in Environmental Science & Technology stating that one single synthetic garment can produce more than 1,900 microfibres per wash, with fleeces being the worst offenders – but even smooth synthetics like nylon shed significantly. Compound billions of people washing billions of garments billions of times in a year, and the effects are clearly effects are devastating.

Plastic Loving Plastic

But the news is worse. We all know plastic is toxic in itself, but studies show it can actually absorb other toxins, like  pesticides or organic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls. When microplastics enter the ocean, they work their way up the food chain, being eaten by bottom feeders swallowed by bigger fish…and eventually, they end up back on our plate. We mentioned this issue in the past, but as related to the toxic effects that microbeads in beauty products were having on the ocean. Now it turns out that fashion is having the same effect.

One of the main campaigners against microbeads – Five Gyres –  is now also turning their efforts to all microfibres in the oceans. The results of one of their most recent studies concludes  that there are over 5 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean, collectively weighing more than 250,000 tons. With a global population of 7.2 billion people, that means there are about 700 plastic pieces in the ocean for every person on Earth.  With an ever growing and wealthier population, Five Gyres predicts  that another 33 billion tons of plastic will be added to the environment by 2050.

Despite much evidence pointing to the dangers of producing clothing from  synthetics, the head researcher of the study, Dr Mark Browne says  he’s had a hard time getting textile companies to listen. He launched a project called Benign by Design, a research project aiming  to determine and remove features of textiles that have negative impacts on humans and the environment.

But when he asked for support for this worthy cause by the fashion industry, he was stonewalled by all but one – the truly superlative eco-luxury brand Eileen Fisher. Other allegedly ‘green’ brands, including Patagonia, plus Polartec, and Nike rejected participating. The ostensibly eco-friendly Patagonia told Browne his extensive research was still ”  too preliminary” to justify any company funding. But watching this video, above, may well change their minds!

why recycled plastic clothing does more harm than good

Better Solutions

While pressuring brands to support Browne’s initiative is certainly a step in the right direction, given the fact that most clothing is actually made from synthetics, there have been calls to solve the microfibre problem by introducing screens to washing machines that would filter the plastic particles out. However, these would have to be fitted to new machines, and by the time these became widespread, the problem will have become even graver.

Another measure we can take is to recycle ocean plastic into items that needn’t be washed frequently, like outerwear, shoes, toys or furniture. One design house who is doing this to perfection is Studio Swine. Featured recently in an exhibition at London’s Selfridges department store, these innovators are gaining a strong reputation for clever recycling of trash into objects for the home.

Finally, we need to stop greenwashing. In general, recycled plastic clothing is NOT good for the planet – though it is often marketed as such.

What truly matters is that  the clothing industry is willing to take  the  findings of environmental scientific research seriously and apply it to textile sourcing. This is true not only for the ‘eco’ brands based on recycled plastics, but also for any clothing manufacturer that uses acrylic, polyester and other textiles that shed toxic microfibres. And ultimately, it’s up to us to make well informed decisions about our fashion purchases, and to think twice every time we buy something that may end up as ocean plastic in the first place.

Chere Di Boscio
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22 thoughts on “Can Recycled Plastic Clothing Do More Harm Than Good?”

  1. Any company trying to make ANY difference should be applauded. There’s still so much left to do to perfect this ECO industry, but only demand by conscientious consumers will move the money that’s needed to invest. There is no one perfect fabric yet. Let’s remember how much water is used to produce cotton. If we’re all on this thread it’s because we give a damn, and that’s the beginning of great change

  2. I would have thought most quality swimwear is hand washed so no / minimal microfibres. There is a real issue here for casual poly clothing but the headline is really inaccurate as Giulio says

    1. Well…not really. The issue is when the microfibres are stirred up in water when washed….or when one is swimming. So actually, recycled plastic swimwear is, in some ways, doing more harm than good – at least when plastic bottles are in the ocean, they are whole chunks, not microfibres. And even if swimwear is washed by hand, the microfibres still end up in the water ways.

  3. What I don’t get is if this is just a problem of recycled plastic clothing of all synthetic clothing. If it’s a problem of all synthetic clothing (as I guess) then I think the title of the article is not 100% correct.

    1. it’s a problem with all synthetic clothing because the microfibers don’t biodegrade. basically recycled synthetics are better than virgin synthetics, but if you’re buying recycled synthetics instead of an (eco-friendly/minimally processed) natural fiber thinking you’re being eco-friendly… you’re probably not.

  4. If this article will be updated, it should be pointed out that Patagonia has already sponsored studies on micro fiber and hence sell the Guppy washing bag to tackle micro fibres

  5. There’s noot much better than a well written article!
    Thank you so much for this relief, I loved every moment of the read.
    Will be looking fofward to your ext article

  6. In a world where there will always be a demand for synthetic clothing to cater to athletes, specifically winter sports and water sports, the good of recycled poly as an alternative to standard polyester most definitely out weighs the bad. I’m sorry, but we are never going to have the majority of athletes performing in 100% cotton or hemp. (get real) Absorbent/natural fibers just won’t work, and won’t fit for a fitness enthusiasts needs. No natural fiber will be suitable for athletics… ever. Also, clothing that is made of PET doesn’t need to be laundered as much because its anti microbial, there for can be worn again and again without the need to wash as much (for example, the ever popular yoga legging). Things like jackets and snow gear also don’t need to be washed regularly, which is the other most popular item that PET is used for. The impact of thousands of pounds of garbage being taken from nature and turned into a fiber that we humans already have a huge demand for is amazing and that demand is not going away. To put down these companies who are not only utilizing trash but also creating thousands of good paying jobs and pleasant working environments is just plain close minded and absurd. It seems that the point of this article is more to generate clicks for ads, then to educate. The conscious factories that have opened in LA to feed this new industry have replaced thousands of priorly unethical jobs in the fashion industry. The success of these companies who have conscious management behind them, have moved people from barely legal working environments to more simply ran factories with better breaks, more efficient sewing procedures, better pay and benefits like on site yoga classes, company work vacations and health care. This plastic is already in our environment, unfortunately. The PET industry helps make it so more isn’t released. We don’t want more polyester created, but athletic wear creates a demand. It is far better to create polyester from trash, then use more petroleum to create a raw material. Unless you only wear 100% organic, locally grown cotton that is un-dyed (which yes, there are some of you out there and kudos to you) wearing recycled poly is one of the next best options.

    1. You’ve got a good point here. Better than sourcing from new plastic for sure. Guess it’s just important for everyone to understand what clothing should be made from this material and what can still be made from organic materials.

  7. We must stop producers from externalising the social & environmental impacts of their design choices. The textile industry WILL try to put responsibility for microfiber plastic pollution onto consumers, washing machine manufacturers and municipal water authorities.. We must instead demand the industry transition to pollution free textiles. #KeepThemHonest #DontBuyTheGreenwash

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