A recent study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation shared the staggering projection that if we continue our current plastic habit, there will be more plastic (by weight) in the ocean than fish by 2050. This isn’t just about plastic bottles and shopping bags though — would you believe that the clothing that we make and wear has contributed to 35 percent of the micro-plastics in the oceans today?
Not only do synthetic textiles never biodegrade, but garments made from synthetic fibers shed up to 700,000 microfibers with every wash. These microfibers are so small; they slip through our water treatment plants and flow into our oceans, acting as sponges for toxic chemicals and other pollutants, which they attract. Microfibers, also contaminated with flame retardants and other harmful finishes, then work their way up the food chain to our plates. We often choose to eat fish as a healthy source of protein and Omega-3s. And we ironically think of fish protein as clean because it comes from water. But, today, studies show up to 90 percent of fish have traces of microfibers in them, so by default, we are indirectly poisoning ourselves with persistent chemicals that can threaten human health.
Moreover, 50 percent of our oxygen comes from the ocean by way of phytoplankton, the lungs of the ocean. When microplastics (including microfibers) block sunlight, phytoplankton cannot photosynthesize and therefore cannot convert and deliver the oxygen that all life needs.
This is not the sole source of fashion’s impact on our waterways. The printing and dyeing of textiles is responsible for 20 percent of all freshwater pollution worldwide. We are destroying ecosystems with runoff from toxic textile treatments, especially from leather tanneries and dye houses. If you’ve traveled abroad to trace your sample production, you’ve probably heard that China’s rivers can predict next season’s color trends. From fiber agriculture and runoff to the treatment of textiles as they are spun, dyed, woven, knit, printed, sewn, washed, packaged, finished, transported, purchased, and cared for, our rivers, and ultimately the waters beyond, shoulder an enormous burden.
Our Plastic Habit
Synthetic fabrics can be amazing in so many ways — it’s no wonder we continue to use plastic in our clothing. It requires no agricultural land to grow and the versatility of synthetics is unmatched. Synthetic fibers are literally engineered to look and feel however we want them to, which is why brands and consumers have become dependent on synthetic performance fabrics over natural fibers. We have become addicted to the convenience of man-made fiber the same way we have become reliant on plastic in our everyday lives.
And here are the hard truths with synthetic fibers that we have to address: Polyester (synthetic, petrochemical-based fiber) is in 60 percent of apparel and the trajectory is set to increase. Acrylic, nylon and rayon accompany polyester as popular synthetic textile fibers. They demand huge amounts of energy to manufacture, but their price is much less than natural fibers, leaving designers and brands asking why on earth they would reduce margins to explore other performance fibers.
In recent years, companies have found a temporary solution in recycling plastic waste, especially PET from plastic bottles, into fiber. However, these recycled garments may shed even more microfibers in the wash than virgin poly garments. These compounding facts can feel heavy and insurmountable, especially as the apparel industry struggles to meet the evolving price and speed demands of today’s consumer who is seeking “faster, cheaper, more” fashion.
Fishing for Solutions
It’s not easy to take all of this in without feeling paralyzed. But, there is hope! These findings are driving mold-breaking innovation and research. Trailblazers are more than just questioning business as usual, as they are abandoning the status quo altogether. Patagonia now sells a filter bag (Guppyfriend) to catch microfibers while washing synthetics. Another contraption, the Cora ball® catches a third of loose microfibers in the washing machine. Cellulosic polymer-based fibers, such as Tencel, don’t rely on petrochemicals and are biodegradable in an aquatic environment. And there are other biosynthetic fibers that may be promising when it comes to curing microfiber pollution. Biosynthetics are performance fibers derived of natural sources, whose microfibers, depending on their feedstock and biological content, might be broken down or digested by organisms. Agraloop uses fiber from crop waste and residue (that would otherwise contribute to carbon dioxide levels) to create fashion fabrics. There is still a whole lot to learn, but the future is bright and humans can be really clever. We engineered our way into this mess, so we can innovate our way out of it.
As consumers, we can help spread the word and raise awareness by sharing the documentary “RiverBlue” or the short video from the makers of “The Story of Stuff: The Story of Microfibers.” We can also choose natural fibers like organic cotton, and wash our clothing less frequently — in cold water, using eco-friendly liquid detergent in front-loading machines. We can avoid acrylic altogether because it sheds the most, and we can install microfiber filters in our washing machines. Most importantly, we can and must slow down our consumption of apparel. Purchasing fewer articles of higher-quality apparel reduces the release of microfibers, since tighter weaves and high-twist yarns shed less.
We need all hands on deck to combat fashion’s water issue. As insiders, we have the potential for twice as much impact — we can cast the net to apply pressure as consumers and fashion professionals. Most importantly, we must start conversations! Relatively speaking, this is new territory, and we have a choice between standing by claiming ignorance or co-creating solutions. Speak up, share what you learn, and nurture relationships founded on common objectives. Together, we can affect positive and material progress in building a new fashion economy that nourishes and regenerates vital ecosystems — to wear the change we wish to “sea.”
Marci Zaroff coined the term “eco-fashion” and is an internationally recognized eco-lifestyle expert, educator, innovator and serial eco-preneur.