Are your clothes made of plastic?

Micro plastics are a huge environmental problem: Not only can micro fibers be found in our oceans and in many marine animals, they are everywhere around us in the air [1]. When the micro fibers are small enough, they can be inhaled and cause inflammation of the lungs and other serious issues [2]. Textiles are the primary contributors to the high amount of micro plastics in the ocean and around us [3] – but why is that and how can we avoid this?

Why clothes contain plastic

It is estimates that about 63% of all newly made clothes are made of plastic materials [4]. Synthetic fibers do have attractive advantages:

  • They are more durable than natural fibers and withstand damage by water or light much better.
  • They are consumer-friendly as they can be stretched and be made waterproof or stain-resistant.
  • They can easily be colored.
  • Their production is much cheaper than that of natural fibers.

Especially that last point makes synthetic fibers so attractive for the global fashion industry: Synthetic fibers can be produced by melting plastic pellets made from raw oil. This is much cheaper than having to grow and cater for cotton plants, harvest the cotton, clean and spin it to obtain natural fibers.

How clothes create micro plastics that pollute our oceans

The main problem of synthetic fibers (besides their production which uses raw oil!) is their washing: The washing process mechanically and chemically breaks down fibers into small particles that are washed out with the water [3]. This way micro fibers and significant amounts of micro plastics end up in our water as well as the oceans.

Per kilogram of laundry, an incredible amount of 640.000 up to 1.500.000 micro fibers are released into the washing water [3]. Due to their small size, they are not filtered out in water treatment plants. Instead, they remain in the water cycle and enter oceans where they pose a thread to marine animals. In addition, this is how micro plastics enters the food chain – so that we find micro plastics even in our food.

Clothes hanging on a clothesline above water. Micro plastics from washing synthetic clothing is the main contributor to the pollution of the oceans. How to avoid micro plastics from textiles?

Which fabrics are made of plastic?

These are the most common synthetic materials used in the textile industry:

  • Polyester
  • Nylon
  • Acrylic
  • Viscose (a.k.a. Rayan)
  • Fleece (and micro fleece)
  • Elastane (a.k.a. Lycra, Spandex)

All of these are made of different kinds of plastics and therefore contribute to the problem of micro plastics.

Which fabrics are good alternatives

There are many natural alternatives that are not made of any plastic and therefore don’t pollute our water:

  • Cotton
  • Silk
  • Hemp
  • Linen
  • Jute
  • Wool (including Cashmere, Alpaca or camel wool)
  • Leather

For strict vegans, only the first five are good alternatives as they are plant-based. But animal-based alternatives such as wool or leather can be a good addition due to their features – if they come from responsible farming, of course.

What you can do

Avoiding plastics in fashion is not easy – but it gets easier. With increasing awareness of the topic, more and more labels start promoting their sustainable garments. Still, it is necessary to check the label to make sure that the item is really made of sustainable materials. Recycled plastic fibers such as ECONYL (nylon made entirely from plastic waste such as ghost nets) are not a solution: They still produce micro plastics and therefore don’t solve the biggest problem!

How to reduce micro plastic from your clothing:

  • Check the label for used materials of the items. Buy clothes made from natural materials, whenever possible.
  • Avoid recycled plastics as well.
  • Wash synthetic items according to their label: Washing too hot or with high mechanical strain will increase fiber breakage [5].
  • Use a special washing bag to collect micro plastics from synthetic items: There are commercially available products arising that can visibly collect fibers during the washing process. Filters in washing machines can help, too.
  • Reuse your synthetic clothes for as long as possible! Studies [3] show that the release of micro plastics during washing is especially bad for the first few washings and lowers already after 4-5 washing cycles. The longer you use the item, the fewer micro plastics are released during washing.

Buying fewer clothes is anyways good advice due to the bad working conditions in the textile industry. What are your favorite brands for sustainable clothing? Can you recommend other tips to reduce micro plastics?


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