When people think of becoming more “sustainable,” common methods to achieve this include recycling bottles, boxes, cans, achieving zero waste, going paperless, and reusing when possible. Yet, there is a plastic pollution culprit hiding in plain sight: the fashion industry. Clothing production and distribution is one of the factors in plastic pollution and the output of carbon emissions today.
A webinar titled, “Unwoven: Phasing Plastic Out of Fashion,” discusses the connection between fashion and plastic: from the way microplastics in clothing are polluting our air and water to the process of synthetic materials and their toxic effects on garment workers as well as unintentional greenwashing in the industry. Speakers included Lauren Ritchie, Creator of The Eco Justice Project, Maxine Bedat, Founder & Director of The New Standard Institute, Imari Walker Karega, Science Communicator & Environmental Engineering PhD Candidate, Duke University, and Tahirah Hariston, Fashion & Beauty Editor for Teen Vogue.
The term plastic here refers to materials such as polyester, acrylic, rayon, even nylon fabrics used in clothes, carpets, and furniture. These synthetic textiles are made from crude oil, and are a growing proportion for the use of plastics today. The very moment these plastic fibers are woven into shirts, athletic, and leisure wear, it creates a potential health risk to workers. For in the process of making these clothes, microfibers are created and released into the air and can be inhaled into the lungs and potentially cause lesions or tumors in high enough exposure. Microfibers are just like microplastics that you see in the news all the time. They come from plastic and they are broken apart into smaller pieces by mechanical processes like making the clothes themselves, to weathering processes in the environment. Now, when this new article of clothing arrives at your door, sometimes when you open it up it can smell like a new car. That smell is nothing more than polymer additives used in the creation of the plastic item itself. Even used to preserve that plastic clothing. These chemicals include phthalates, disperse azo dyes, perfluorinated compounds, sometimes even formaldehyde. Some chemicals are known to cause cancer and can be reproductively toxic to the human body. Most of the chemicals in plastic aren’t well studied or even disclosed to the public.
Bedat makes a point of trying to phase plastic out of fashion. She states from writing her book, “Unraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment” that she's had the opportunity to travel around the world seeing the creation and ultimate destruction of our clothing items. She was shocked to see the rise of these synthetic, plastic based materials directly coinciding with the rise of disposable fashion business models. What I mean by this is “fast fashion,” which is inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends. For example, (H&M, Forever 21, Zara, etc.) These brands try to stay up with what's trendy “right now,” which means their clothing collections are rapidly changing with every new trend of the week and they’re constantly putting out new material. Fast fashion is so intertwined into today’s society that these plastic based materials are the predominant fiber choice for the clothing at large now. If we are serious about addressing plastic pollution, we have to get serious about the business models of fashion that have come to dominate within the past generation. From a historical perspective, the use of plastics began within the 50’s, was popularized in the 70’s and really took off within the last 20 years. Plastic has become the dominant fiber. Before this, we were using natural fibers. I say this because, looking at our fashion industry now, this plastic pollution can seem impossible to tackle. But it hasn’t always been this way and it doesn’t have to continue this way.
When dealing with plastic based fabrics, the first wash of the item can remove some of the residual chemicals from your clothing. But the rest of these chemicals will be slowly released over years, even decades as you sweat and continually wash your clothing. This release rate is dependent on the material properties of your clothing and the chemical additives that are on it as well. It's not just chemical exposure that we have to worry about, the moment you wash these clothes. Thousands of microfibers are released into waste water. And the amount of fibers released actually depends on the age of the clothing, type, way it's woven, the temperature of the water used to wash them, even detergents, and how it's cared for over time. Unfortunately full recovery of these microfibers is an extremely difficult to impossible task.
For example, a polyester fleece jacket removes an average of 1.7 grams of microfibers with each wash and can flow into our waste water. Roughly 96% of those microfibers are captured using wastewater processes into the sludge and the rest can end up being dumped into our rivers, eventually oceans, and in circumstances it can end up in drinking water. Unfortunately, 96% of removed microfibers can then be reapplied as fertilizer in the soil that's used to grow our food. Thus microfibers are reintroduced through our soil, air, and water. Once in our environment microplastics can harm marine life through entanglement, starvation, and altered feeding rates. These fibers can be consumed by marine life and have the potential to be concentrated up the food chain to someone's seafood dinner. We have also seen that these microplastics can break down to smaller pieces called nano plastics and because they are so small, they have the potential to move into the tissue. In humans, trace amounts of microplastics have been found in the colon as well as the placenta of pregnant mothers. We have very little knowledge on the health implications of all these microplastics in our air, water, soil, in our food and in our body.
To start phasing plastic out of fashion we have to push to create stronger transparency in the textile making process along with reducing our textile consumption and thus reducing microfiber pollution into our environment.
Cheers to a greener future!