The Environmental Impacts Of Microplastics In Our Clothes

Tiny Plastic circles, multi-colored mostly pink

There’s a secret battle going on in your outfit. It’s not a clashing color scheme, and it’s not a fight to fit into those jeans. No, the battle in your outfit is between the microplastics in synthetic fabrics and our aquatic environment. Because even though it may be surprising, the synthetic fabrics in our clothing are one of the leading sources of microplastic pollution. And if this comes as news to you, buckle up, because we’re about to stitch some facts together about what’s really going in those fashionable fabrics.

How Do Our Clothes Contribute To The Microplastic Problem?

In an attempt to help curb ocean pollution, many clothing manufacturers have been collecting plastic from the oceans and downcycling it into synthetic fibers. Specifically, they are melting down the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) in plastic bottles and packaging and turning it into recycled plastic fibers. This is a great way to deal with ocean macro waste and far superior practice to most clothing companies that are producing new fabrics with freshly made PET. However, regardless of whether these fibers are new or recycled, they share a similar problem: microplastics.

New and recycled plastic fibers are both used for the same purpose: synthetic fabrics for (mostly) fast-fashion clothing collections. The issue is that when this clothing is washed, it sheds microplastic fibers into the air, waterways, and oceanic environment. These microplastic fibers contribute to a critical problem of microplastic pollution, which accounts for over eighty percent of shoreline pollution around the world. 

Where Do Microplastics Come From? 

Microplastics are showing up in fish, saltwater, air, and even our drinking water. According to the Plastic Pollution Coalition, eighty-three percent of drinking water samples worldwide have tested positive for microscopic plastic fibers. And a large part of these microplastics come from microfibers in our clothes. 

These microfibers specifically come from synthetic fabrics, such as acrylic, nylon, and polyester. And every time clothing with these fibers is washed, microfibers are released. In fact, any single synthetic garment can release as many as 1,900 fibers per wash. And since these fibers are too small to be filtered by waste treatment plants, they end up in our waterways and oceans in the form of microplastics.

This negative impact is further expounded by the fact that microplastics broken down from microfibers are also likely to absorb toxins such as pesticides, PCBs, and other organic pollutants. Then, after they have been ingested by fish or have entered our waterways, they serve as a micro toxin delivery method, injecting pollutants directly into the food chain.

How To Cut Down On The Microplastics Washing Out Of Your Clothes

Until synthetic fibers are completely phased out, microplastic fibers will find their way into our waters. And while it may be hard to feel like you can make a difference in the face of a gigantic industry making millions of microplastic-laden fabrics, here are some ways you can cut down on the microplastics leaking out of your wardrobe!

•           Purchase clothes made from natural and responsibly grown fibers. Natural and responsible fibers include sustainable and humanely harvested cotton, linen, or sustainable wool, all of which break down when released into water or the air.

•           Buy fewer, more durable clothes. Swap clothes when possible, reuse old items and donate old clothing to places like the goodwill instead of throwing them away.

•           Invest in a sewing kit, and stitch up damaged items yourself.

•           Don’t use microfiber rags or towels when cleaning (they leave microplastics behind)!

•           Look at your clothing tags, and identify which items are synthetic fabrics. Wash these items less frequently, and make sure the load is full when you do (less friction between clothes releases fewer microplastic fibers).

•           If you can find one, use a washing machine with a fiber filter, or wash synthetic fabrics in a filter bag like Guppyfriend bags. 

•           “Fast Fashion” is not only overloaded with cheaply made synthetic fibers. It is also of poor durability, contributes to landfills, has a higher chance of having toxins inside its dyes and fibers, and exposes textile workers to large amounts of chemicals and poor factory conditions. Ditch fast fashion for sustainable designers and brands, or shop second hand!

The Clean Essentials

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