This #PlasticFreeJuly we investigate into the fashion industry's plastic problem, looking at the impact this has on the environment and what fashion brands can be doing differently (5minute read).
It is #plasticfreejuly! We love getting involved in this campaign and are passionate about reducing our use of plastic throughout our lifestyles. However, this time around we wanted to explore an issue very close to our hearts… plastics in our wardrobes. The fashion industry is a massive contributor to plastic pollution and we’re not just talking about packaging, plastics are hiding away in many of our favourite pieces of clothing.
This issue ranges from using materials such as pure PVC, polyester, polyamide or acrylic to synthetic blends, plastic buttons, fastenings and the thread used to keep our clothing together. Yes, it can make clothes more durable but the biggest issue with using plastics in clothes is that when we wash them, they shed, releasing microplastics into our ecosystems.
WHERE CAN WE FIND PLASTIC IN OUR WARDROBES?
Synthetic textiles can either be made from plastics, such as polyester, polyamide and acrylic, or from plant materials that are chemically dissolved and then spun into fibres, such as rayon, viscose, lyocell, modal and cupro.
The vast majority of synthetic fibres come from virgin plastics, which are made using fossil fuels, which contribute significantly to global warming and climate change.
According to the government report Fixing Fashion, the plastic most commonly used in textiles is polyethylene terephthalate (PET) or polyester. Most synthetic fibres (approximately 70%) are made from polyester and it is now used in around 60% of garments.
This quantity has doubled since 2000, according to the London Textile Forum. One problem preventing greater uptake of recycled polyester is that low oil prices make new virgin plastics cheaper than recycled PET.
You can find clothes made from pure polyester, however, it most commonly appears in polyester blends. This is where polyester is blended with natural materials such as cotton or wool. Wool is also often blended with acrylic fibres.
This means that even though these garments contain natural materials, they are not biodegradable. Polyester can take up to 200 years to degrade, and when landfilled or incinerated they can also shed microfibres and leach toxic chemicals into the earth.
Even if a garment is 100% cotton, many garments are sewn together using polyester or nylon thread (at Zola Amour we stitch with organic cotton). The positive of this is that it is stronger than 100% cotton thread, however, as mentioned above, polyester and nylon thread will not biodegrade and when they do degrade they can be incredibly harmful. This is the same for plastic buttons too.
THE ISSUE WITH FABRICS AND MATERIALS MADE FROM RECYCLED, POST-CONSUMER PLASTIC WASTE
There is a big trend with ‘sustainable fashion’ being made from plastic recycled post-consumer waste, such as ocean plastics or plastic bottles. Repurposing these otherwise redundant pollutants can be seen as positive. It keeps them in the loop and means that we are not using more fossil fuels and resources to make the fabrics. However, using this material to make clothes that will be regularly washed can actually cause more harm than good, as they shed and release plastic microfibres into the environment.
RECYCLING SYNTHETIC PLASTIC MATERIALS
When materials are blended together it makes them really hard to recycle which means that often, they will end up in landfill.
Recycling pure synthetic plastic material isn’t the answer either. This comes with its own environmental impacts.
Emma Priestland from Friends of The Earth says “For many materials, recycling is a useful way of preventing pollution – but not for plastic. It just delays the inevitable escape of pollutants into the environment. Ultimately, to end the plastic pollution crisis, we need government action to phase-out all but the most essential plastics.”
SHEDDING PLASTIC MICROFIBRES INTO THE OCEAN
Another issue with using synthetic, plastic blends in fabrics arises when we wash our clothes. Textiles are estimated to be the largest source of synthetic fibres in the oceans with microplastics shedding into the water system every time garments are washed.
Fixing Fashion tells us that as much as 20% to 35% of all primary source microplastics in the marine environment are from synthetic clothing, according to academic estimates.
Research from Friends of The Earth found that clothes washing in the UK is estimated to generate around 4,000 tonnes of plastic microfibre pollution every year, of which 1,600 tonnes could be ending up in our rivers and estuaries. One washing load of clothes could be shedding up to 17 million tiny plastic fibres.
WHAT IS THE ALTERNATIVE TO USING PLASTIC IN FASHION?
Fixing Fashion proposes that the government investigates whether its proposed tax on virgin plastics, which comes into force in 2022, should be applied to textile products that contain less than 50% recycled PET to stimulate the market for recycled fibres in the UK.
This should, hopefully, make fashion brands think twice about the materials they are using to make their collections. Instead as an industry, we need to prioritise materials that are safe, healthy and designed for reuse and recycling.
We are passionate about using regenerative materials that are returned to the biosphere in the form of compost or other nutrients, from which new materials can be created.
OUR COMMITMENT TO PLASTIC-FREE CLOTHING WITH MINIMAL IMPACT ON THE ENVIRONMENT
We choose to use 100% natural fibres and avoid plastics. We’re passionate about being part of the sustainable fashion movement, designing out plastics from the fashion industry and creating quality, durable pieces that can go back into the earth. Our we use organic GOTS certified cotton, bamboo, modal and hemp. We also only use cotton thread. Shop our earth-friendly wardrobe-essentials.
P.s. of course it is still important that if you do have second-hand clothing made from polyester you get the most use out of it as possible. However, you can wash them in a Guppy Friend bag which catches the fibres and can be emptied into the bin.