The plastic pollution threat from clothing

Camilla Zerr, Friends of the Earth’s plastics campaigner, tells us how to minimise the shedding of microfibres from our clothes.
 

The idea that we are wearing plastic clothes may sound surprising. However, not only is it true, but it’s also contributing to the plastic pollution crisis.

Many of our clothes contain plastics like polyester, nylon, acrylic and polyamide. These plastics in clothes are called microfibres: plastic-based threads that are even thinner than human hair, which are shed when our clothes are washed.

Despite being so small, these plastic fibres contribute around 9% of the plastic pollution entering the sea: more than that from plastic bags and microbeads put together. Furthermore, clothes washing in the UK is estimated to be responsible for around 1,600 tonnes of plastic pollution pouring into our rivers and estuaries every year – equivalent to the weight of 12 blue whales. Studies by Friends of the Earth and Bangor University even found microplastic pollution in Britain’s most iconic and remote rivers and lakes, including the Lake District and Loch Lomond.

Sadly, the tiny size of microfibres doesn’t make them harmless to animal life. Small sea organisms like plankton can easily mistake them for food. Plankton is the main food source of many fish and marine animals, which will in turn be ingesting a dose of plastic pollution, potentially passing microfibres up the food chain.

And it’s not only our water, rivers and oceans which are affected. Microfibres are also in the air we breathe. New scientific research shows that fibres from clothing such as nylon and polyester may damage cells in our lungs, making the growth and repair of our airways harder.

Bag with clothes inside Guppybag
Guppyfriend washing bag

What can we do to help solve this?

We can all do our bit to reduce the microfibre pollution escaping from our clothes (see below), but synthetic clothes have taken over our shops and some alternative textiles can also have negative environmental and social justice impacts. Without strong government action and industry change, our individual efforts won’t ever be enough to solve the problem.

The good news is that new UK legislation to protect the environment is being written in the Environment Bill right now. Friends of the Earth is calling on government to seize this once in a lifetime opportunity by setting laws that drastically reduce all sources of plastic pollution, including from clothes and other textiles.

In the meantime, as individuals, here are a few suggestions to help reduce plastic pollution shed by our clothes:

  1. Embrace “slow fashion” and clothes swaps: Keep your clothes for longer, repurpose them or find shops that do clothes swaps or sell second-hand items. Clothes are likely to shed more plastic when they’re new, in the first few washes.

  2. Fill your washing machine up full, wash at low temperatures and reduce spin speeds: A full washing machine and low spins reduces how much your clothes rub against each other (the rubbing could risk causing more plastics being shed). A lower-temperature wash is also less aggressive and therefore less likely to shake out plastic fibres.

  3. Use a Guppyfriend bag or a Cora Ball: If you use these in your washing machine, they claim to help collect microfibres.

  4. Air dry rather than tumble dry: Tumble drying is more aggressive than air drying – and could cause your clothes to shed more plastic.

  5. Add you voice to campaigns: Join Friends of the Earth and others in demanding that government set new laws to end plastic pollution. You can: