There are many reasons why the role of plastic in fashion has to change. Here are a few of them
By Olivia Pinnock
Going ‘plastic free’ has become a huge trend in most of the developed world. Consumers are shopping at zero waste stores, they’re rejecting straws, plastic bottles and bags and are demanding an end to single-use plastics. But what is the role of plastic in fashion?
By now, most of us are aware of the microplastic pollution that’s caused by washing clothing made of polyester, acrylic, lycra and other plastic-based fabrics. But this is, in fact, a complex ecological problem that needs urgent attention.
The role of plastic in fashion was the theme of a recent discussion hosted by The Fashion Debates. Emma Priestland, plastic pollution campaigner at Friends of the Earth, Charney Magri, fashion photographer and co-founder of Fashion 4 Change, and Amanda Johnston, curator and consultant at The Sustainable Angle, explored the issue on a panel. I attended the event, and learned this:
- it’s thought that around 60% of the world’s textiles are made from plastics, including polyester, nylon, fleece and even some organza, which, during the manufacturing process and at-home washing shed thousands of plastic microfibers
- while enormous strides have been made to cut back on single-use plastics such as straws, 45% of people don’t realise their clothes are made from plastic
- 1,900 fibers could be released from a single synthetic garment in a wash; another effort estimated 1 million fibers could be released from washing polyester fleece.
- 83% of our water contains plastic microfibers: that is bottled water, that is oceans, that is rain water, that is puddles, everything. And in the United States, the number is 94%
Microplastics, huge problem
These tiny, invisible plastics present a particularly difficult challenge. “It’s really the small size (of microparticles) that’s the problem with them,” said Emma. “Because they’re so tiny, it’s really easy for animals at the bottom of the food chain to ingest them. We don’t quite know the exact problem this is causing but there are a lot of hints out there and it’s not looking particularly great,” Emma explained. “For most scientists that you speak to who are researching plastic, microfibers is the one they’re really terrified about.” The danger presented to these animals include injuries, gut blockages and lower oxygen absorption to name a few. The ingestion of microfibers by humans through drinking water and eating seafood could also be harmful for us.
Fashion has been exploring using recycled plastic to create fabrics, such as Emma Watson’s Green Carpet Challenge dress at the 2016 Met Gala, but this is still not a great solution, especially since there are also concerns around the toxicity of these fabrics. As Emma Priestland explains, “The plastic that’s floating around in the ocean is absorbing toxic chemicals. A lot of the chemicals that we banned decades ago are still sitting in the ocean. So if we’re taking plastic from the ocean and wearing it, what’s happening to those toxins?” The answer to that question, according to Greenpeace, is that we are possibly absorbing them into our bodies through our skin.
But there’s more to the role of plastic in fashion, which becomes evident at the end of a garment’s life. Polyester and other oil based materials can take up between 20 to 200 years to start breaking down. That means they clog landfill, polluting the earth and groundwater on the way, or polluting the air if they’re incinerated. This is even more so when the clothes are made from actual plastic, or worse – PVC (as seen in the bikini below and trench above).
It seems incredible that even those who would shun plastic straws and bottles have no qualms about literally wearing plastic, just because it’s in style!
Yes, there are some solutions
The situation may look dire: microscopic plastic particles are being washed into the water we drink by the tonne every day, and like plastic, artificial fibres take centuries to break down and pollute our planet as they do so. But there are indeed solutions.
It’s a class-deaf message to insist everyone wear all naturally dyed organic cotton, wool, or hemp clothes. The solutions need to be more systemic. And they can start with our washing machines.
“Washing machines need to be designed to reduce emissions of fibers to the environment; at the moment they are not,” says Mark Browne, a environmental scientist at University College Dublin who has found evidence of microfiber pollution coming from wastewater treatment plants. Currently, Napper is working on a project looking into whether fiber filters for washing machines are a feasible solution.
Textile manufacturers could also design fabrics that shed fewer microparticles, clothing companies could start using them, and consumers could be more mindful of the situation. Too often, we think that buying garments made from recycled plastic is helping the environment, when the exact opposite may be true. And we often don’t consider the impact of accessories, like jewellery, handbags and headbands – all of which are usually made out of, you guessed it, plastic.
“We still know little about how to minimize the environmental impacts of washing our clothes,” Cesa says. But there are two overall recommendations for consumers: “Buy fewer clothes, and wash only when necessary.”
Part of the solution lies in the new diversity of up-and-coming fabrics. Regenerated materials made from food waste, like orange peels, pineapple waste, mushrooms, milk, lab-grown fabrics and other innovative solutions could be more prevalent in the near future.
Friends of the Earth is currently running a petition, which you can sign here, calling on retailers to investigate shedding from their clothes, inform their customers and look at ways they can limit this in their supply chain such as adding filters to water outlets. Consumers can make changes too: washing a full load at a lower temperature can help decrease particle shedding.
But perhaps the best suggestion comes from Charney. Her advice? “Wear, love, share, mend and slow down. Bringing those sorts of solutions into our everyday lives is an immediate thing we can all do.”
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