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Is there plastic in my clothes?

The majority of new clothes are made of plastic. Not only is plastic produced from fossil fuels, it causes massive pollution of our rivers, seas and other ecosystems.

In this article, we discuss how to recognise plastic clothing, the problems with plastics and what you can do to tackle it. 

As much as 64% of new fabrics are made of plastics. But with names like polyester and acrylic, you might not always be able to spot them. 

How is plastic used in clothing?

Plastic is an incredibly durable and light material. It has also been very cheap to produce over recent decades, due to the dangerously low cost of fossil fuels. As a result, it has become central to the fashion industry.

However, you won’t ever find ‘plastic’ listed on a fabric label. Instead, the name of the fabric type will be shown. These fabrics are all made from plastic:

  • Polyester
  • Acrylic
  • Nylon
  • Polyamide

Polyester is the most common of these. It is made from crude oil, which is reacted with a series of chemicals in order to make liquid polyester. This liquid is then pushed through tiny holes to make long threads that can be woven into thread and then into fabric.

What are the problems with plastic clothing?

The textile industry uses 15% of all plastic globally. Plastics are made from petrochemicals, which are in turn produced from oil and gas. The plastic industry is therefore helping to sustain fossil fuel demand – at a time when we should be rapidly ending fossil fuel use and all new fossil fuel extraction.

In fact, as other industries (like heating and transport) move away from fossil fuel dependence, there is a risk that oil and gas will just be redirected to plastic production. Petrochemicals are set to be the largest driver of oil demand in the coming decades, responsible for more than 50% by 2050. Our dependence on plastics – along with other petrochemical products like synthetic pesticides and fertilisers – is undermining global climate goals.

But fossil fuels are not the only issue with plastic clothing. Plastic waste is found in every corner of our planet, and can seriously harm animals who eat or get trapped by it.

Plastics don’t biodegrade, meaning that when they break down they just turn into ever smaller pieces, known as microplastics. Microplastics are not only released if plastic clothing ends up in landfill: they are released every time we wash or tumble dry our clothes.

Microplastics have been found around the world: they are on the ocean floor and trapped in Arctic sea ice. They can be toxic to sea life, and can damage fishes’ organs, change their behaviour or harm their ability to reproduce.

As humans eat seafood and drink water, they ingest these tiny pieces of plastic. In 2022, scientists detected plastics in human blood for the first time. Almost 80% of those tested had plastic in their blood. We don’t yet know for sure what the impact on human health is, but in labs, microplastics have been found to cause damage to human cells.

Scarf with polyester material labelling

Is recycled plastic clothing better?

More and more brands are offering clothing made with at least some recycled plastics.

Recycled polyester is made from plastic waste, most often used plastic bottles. There are two ways these can be transformed to produce fabrics. For mechanical recycling, the plastic is melted down and respun into new fibres to make new yarn. This is the most common method, but each time the fibre is recycled in this way, it loses some strength and quality, meaning it can only be done a few times.

For chemical recycling, the waste is broken down using a series of chemicals before it can be reformed and respun. The fibres maintain their quality, meaning they can be recycled indefinitely, but it is more expensive.

The actual amount of recycled content will vary, as it is generally mixed with ‘virgin’ (new) plastic fibres. The fabric label should tell you the exact amount.

Recycled plastic fabrics have a much lower carbon footprint than virgin plastics. They also reduce demand for oil and gas, compared to making a plastic item from scratch. And they have saved some plastics from going into landfill.

But there are many other problems that recycled plastic clothing does nothing to prevent. If you buy a new top or fleece made from a mixture of recycled and new plastic fibres, it still requires fossil fuels to produce. Recycled plastic clothes also release as many microfibres when they are washed and at the end of life. As a result, some campaigners see recycled plastic as a way for brands to avoid real change.

If you’re trying to decide whether to go for a recycled plastic product, it will likely depend on your situation. Buying second-hand is always better than buying new - even if the new item is made from recycled plastic. You may also be able to find the item in a more ethical fabric: check out our article on sustainable fabrics. If not, though, recycled material is always better than 100% new.

Which brands use plastic in their clothing?

Almost all clothing brands use plastic fabrics like polyester and acrylic in at least some of their clothing (and for many it’s used for the majority). These materials are ubiquitous on the high street.

For more ethical alternatives, check out our Ethical Clothing shopping guide. Many of the brands in this guide champion sustainable fabrics like recycled cotton or organic linen instead. You might sometimes face a tricky decision about what to prioritise. Warm jumpers are often made from either wool or polyester – not great for vegans wanting to go plastic free. Our article on fabrics ranks each one, so you can decide what to look for.  

When it comes to recycled polyester, Patagonia performs particularly well: 87% of Patagonia’s polyester was made from recycled plastic in its Spring 2023 collection.

Take action

You can take action on plastic fibres in clothing with several different approaches. Each one is explained in more detail below.

  1. Choose second-hand
  2. Sell, give away, recycle or upcycle your old clothes
  3. Think about how you wash your clothing
  4. Add your voice to campaigns

What can consumers do about plastic in clothing?

1. Choose second-hand

Second-hand is always better for the environment than new clothing. In fact, the biggest way we can reduce the carbon footprint of our wardrobe is by extending the active life of our clothing, whether that is by wearing things for longer, giving them to friends or buying pre-loved.

Ethical Consumer has a useful article to buying second-hand clothes, and repairing and upcycling which you can read for top tips.

2. Sell, give away or recycle your old clothes

When plastic clothes are thrown away, they go to landfill or are incinerated. In landfill, they break down releasing microplastics. If they are incinerated, they release greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global heating.

Selling your clothes or giving them to a friend can help to prolong their life and avoid plastic waste. If they are unusable – they’re falling apart or full of holes that can’t be fixed – you can recycle them. Recycle Now is a great website that can tell you the easiest way to recycle your clothes based on your postcode.

3. Think about how you wash your clothing

The way that we wash our clothes affects the amount of microplastics released.

Filling up your washing machine and putting it on a low spins reduces how much your clothes rub against each other (the rubbing could risk causing more plastics being shed). Lower temperature washes are also likely to result in less plastic fibres being shed. Tumble drying can also cause your clothes to shed more plastic, so you may want to opt for air drying instead.

Some companies have also developed products to help catch microfibres, such as Guppyfriend bags and Cora Balls.

We might also be able to wash our clothes less often. Whilst things like underpants need washing every time, jumpers or jeans need to be washed much less frequently unless you’ve spilt food or toothpaste on them. You could hang them up to air before putting them away to wear again, which helps keep them fresh.

4. Add your voice to campaigns

Political action can help end the harms of plastic clothing. You could email your MP about your concerns. You could also sign a petition by Friends of the Earth, which is calling on the government to make businesses responsible for their environmental and human rights harms under law.