It might be surprising, but the clothes your wearing right now are likely to be made out of plastic. Just check the washing label, chances are your top is made of polyester. Other common syntetic fibers and words for plastic in clothing includes nylon, acrylic, rayon, polymer, vinylon, spandex, olefin, modacrylic, neoprene, terylene, fleece, micro fiber, and faux/vegan - leather and fur.
We know that single-use plastic is hurting the planet, so we choose to ditch the straws and plastic bags. But what about the plastic that is in our clothes? You might think "but clothing is not single-use, so it doesn't hurt the environment". The sad truth is that it does in many different ways. Over 60% of new fabrics are made out of plastic. Synthetic garments are cheap to make and extremely versatile as they provide breathability, stretchiness, warmth and wind cover, but these garments are polluting oceans, harming wildlife and potentially poisoning us merely by washing them.
Fast fashion brands constantly push out new products, producing far too much clothing that results in billions worth of unsold inventory, and tonnes of brand-new clothing being sent to landfill every year. Stock destruction is common practice also amongst high-end brand, that is burning millions worth of clothing and accessories instead of selling it cheaper, to protect the brand's value and exclusivity.
On average we wear only 40% of our wardrobe, and each garment only 7 times before disposing of. That means that 60% of our clothes are likely to go to landfill or second-hand stores. Only 15% of the garments that goes to charity shops in Australia are resold, the rest goes to landfill. In Australia alone, more than 500 000 tonnes of textile goes to landfill every year.
Plastic clothing takes up to 200 years to break down, and it doesn't harmlessly disappear, but break down into smaller pieces. Natural fibres such as cotton and wool that are essentially biodegradable and compostable will not break down in landfill because it'sits not the right conditions. Instead, wool will leak a type of ammonia that is damaging the environment.
Microfibres and ocean plastic
Microfibres are plastic particles smaller than 5mm, thinner than a human hair. Every time we wash garments made of plastic, they shed millions of plastic microfibres. Just one load of clothes could be shedding up to 17 million synthetic fibres so small they drain out of washing machines and go through the wastewater treatment plants, and straight into the ocean. Our washing machines and wastewater plant are not designed to catch the microfibres our clothes shed every time we wash them. Some detergent also contains toxic chemicals that pose a risk to our health and wildlife. In the ocean, they absorb nasty chemical and get eaten by sea animals such as plankton that mistake it for food. Studies have found that the microfibers can absorb high concentrations of toxic substances from the ocean, including chemicals like pesticide we used years ago that are now banned. These toxic fibres can be passed up the food chain, which means we might end up eating our own clothes and damaging chemicals. These fibres have been found in drinking water, rivers, soil, air, salt and seafood around the world.
Some brands are now marketing clothing made from recycled plastic bottles as eco-friendly, but these garments still shed microplastic. Recycling plastic is not the answer as it can only be recycled a few times and is just a way of delaying the inevitable escape of pollutant into the ocean. We need to remove these fibres from our textiles as they are absolutely not necessary.
What can we do
Phase-out all non-essential plastic products and remove the most polluting items from our wardrobes like fleece and fake fur.
We can reduce the amount of microplastic by using natural biodegradable fabrics such as organic cotton, linen, hemp and flax.
Sign petitions to remove the most polluting items from store shelves.
Only wash clothes when really needed with full loads on low temperatures and reduced spin speed. Full loads mean less friction between garments and less shedding. Low temperatures and spin rate are less likely to shake out plastic fibres.
Always use non-abrasive detergents and air dry instead of tumbler drying. Some special washing bags claim to help collect the microfibres during the wash.
Choose quality over quantity and keep your garments longer. Every additional year a garment is worn means less pollution. Cheap clothing often doesn't survive the wash cycle, meaning that in the long run, you don't save money compared with buying better quality garments.