Synthetic clothing and microfibres in the oceans
Plastic-based or synthetic fibres account for about two-thirds of all textiles. The majority of this is polyester, followed by nylon and acrylic. Another quarter is cotton. With cotton try to buy organic, or it has one of the highest environmental impacts of all fabrics due to the amount of pesticides used.
Although synthetics aren’t grown (so they do not require agricultural land and use relatively little water in production), they are all energy-intensive to produce and are mostly made from oil.
Synthetics are not biodegradable and, when washed, they can release plastic microfibres which can end up in rivers and oceans. Once there, they can absorb other toxic chemicals, get eaten by sea creatures and, thereby, enter the human food chain.
This relatively recent discovery has sent ecologists and clothing companies off to do further research.
Although it looks like only around 8% of microfibres in the ocean come from synthetic clothing, the problem still needs solving.
Friends of the Earth published an excellent report in November 2018 called “Reducing Household Contributions to Marine Plastic Pollution”. It concluded that the ubiquity of synthetic clothing means that consumers can’t solve this one on their own.
The ultimate solution will require regulators to address issues like compulsory changes to sewage plants and washing machine filters, and companies to change the clothes they are making.
In the meantime, it does offer some advice to consumers including the following:
- Buy fewer fleeces as these initially look like the most problematic garment type.
- Wash synthetic garments in a ‘guppy bag’ or with a ‘Cora ball’.
- Wash synthetics at low temperatures with full loads and lower spin speeds.
Recent research says to avoid delicate washes and half loads.
Other groups such as Plastic Pollution Coalition talk about trying to avoid all synthetic clothing.
However, its ubiquity, and its presence as mixed fibres (such as elastane) in other garments, make this as tricky as avoiding all single-use plastic food packaging.