What about the Invisible Plastic in your Clothes?

It may surprise many people to learn that their clothes are adding to the plastic pollution problem in our oceans. Known as microfibres, the invisible plastic fibres within garments are so tiny that they will shed in the washing machine and eventually find their way into the sea.

Although individually the microfibres are minute, when you take into account that millions of people are wearing fabrics such as polyester, acrylic, nylon and polyamide, it's easy to see how they combine to worsen the pollution problem.

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How big is the problem?

According to Friends of the Earth, up to 64% of modern materials contain plastic microfibres, which pass straight through wastewater treatment plants and into the sea. Marine creatures will then inadvertently eat these fibres, which may have absorbed toxic chemicals on their journey.

Studies have shown that they have turned up in seafood, such as mussels. So, what can we do to combat the problems caused by the plastic fibres in modern materials?

The stumbling block may be how difficult it is to change the industry as a whole. Production of polyester has increased tenfold since 1980. Now, 53.7 million tonnes per year are produced, according to data released by the Textile Exchange - a United States non-profit organisation.

In fact, polyester today accounts for 51% of all fibre production. Twice as much polyester as cotton is produced, using a lot of energy and oil in the process. Yet worldwide, people throw away around 48 million tonnes of clothes every year. Three-quarters of our discarded garments end up in landfill sites, or are simply incinerated.

Are the microfibres poisonous?

Materials containing plastic can be toxic, even while the garments are still in use, or after recycling. According to a study by the University of California, a polyester fleece jacket released 1.7 grams of plastic microfibres every time it went in the wash.

While the use of tiny microbeads in cosmetics was banned in the UK in 2018, microfibres are still legally produced, despite the fact they may be just as destructive.

A Plymouth University study estimated one 6kg load of synthetic laundry could release around 700,000 minute pieces of plastic fibre into the sea. The toxic effects pass up the food chain, killing marine life and ending up on our dinner table.

What is the fashion industry's response?

The good news is that the fashion industry is increasingly aware of the problem and is now trying to encourage more sustainable products.

American clothing company, Everlane, is committed to eradicating all non-recycled plastic from its stores, supply chain and offices by 2021. When they first began changing their policy five years ago, many suppliers didn't stock recycled fabrics, or wouldn't think to show them to a buyer as a matter of course.

Now, as the industry starts to realise the issues with microfibres, recycled fabrics are the first thing shown to Everlane's buyers. As a result, Everlane's Renew range has gone one step further by releasing a collection of outerwear and fleeces manufactured solely from recycled plastic bottles.

When did recycled plastic clothing begin?

Technology needed to produce more sustainable clothing has existed since the 1990s - all the industry needs to do is persuade more brands to use it.

The first recycled polyester fleece was launched by the American outdoor clothing brand, Patagonia, in 1993. Made of recycled plastic bottles, it was a pale green colour. The company now keeps the original fleece in their archives.

However, due to the basic technology at the time, the fleece hasn't remained in good shape and the texture has become what the manufacturer calls "crispy" more than two decades down the line.

Today, more than 80% of the materials Patagonia uses to make clothing are recycled. The company hopes to increase this to 90% during the next 12 months.

How is the used plastic processed?

Another US company, Unifi, is sorting and processing used plastic into shreds and chips, which can be spun into yarn again. Unifi has been in operation for more than a decade and has recycled more than 16 billion plastic bottles since 2008 into a fabric called Repreve.

Unifi aims to have recycled 30 billion plastic bottles by 2022 to make into new garments. As well as supplying Patagonia, it also supplies seat covers for vehicle manufacturer Ford.

The company says there's always plenty of waste plastic to pick up and they are never going to run out of material to recycle.

What do consumers think?

One of the problems the fashion industry faces is that the recycled material is currently not of a high enough quality for some brands to consider using it. In addition, it's too expensive for some companies to use. Although larger clothing manufacturers can buy sufficient material to make it cost-effective, the small to medium-sized brands may find it isn't viable to use recycled fabrics.

Another problem is a general lack of interest from retailers at present. This has been described as a lack of demand "from the bottom" of the chain. Retailers haven't been stocking clothing made from recycled fabric because, in the words of one manufacturer, "My customer doesn’t care - so why should I?"

Regardless of a perceived reluctance for customers and retailers to fully embrace recycled fashion, some of the major brands are doing their utmost to promote it as a viable alternative.

Which brands are on board?

Designer Stella McCartney aims to phase out virgin nylon by 2020, followed by polyester by 2025. Adidas states it will use recycled polyester in all appropriate garments by 2024.

Brands synonymous with fast fashion, Asos and Boohoo, have pledged to support recycled materials. Asos launched its Eco Edit range in 2010, featuring clothing made from 50% sustainable fibres. The brand has now pledged to expand this range.

Earlier this year, Boohoo launched its first recycled range, called For the Future. The company says they're all for dressing well and doing their bit for the planet.

High-end fashion retailer Net-A-Porter is now promoting Net Sustain, which is a platform for brands driven by a desire to make fashion more sustainable – including Mara Hoffman, Veja, Stine Goya, Lem Lem and many more.

How can we help?

Friends of the Earth says consumers can do their bit to stop microfibres escaping into the water system by using their washing machine at a lower temperature and putting their washing in a special washbag. Reducing the spin cycle speed can also help prevent microfibres from escaping. The charity says polyester fleeces may be one of the biggest problems when it comes to shedding microfibres, so people should consider buying woollen fleeces instead.

In the UK, Isle of Wight clothing brand Rapanui has launched an innovative scheme whereby any customer who returns a garment to be recycled will receive a £5 store credit note. The scheme is flourishing and the manufacturer describes it as "investing in sustainability".

The investment seems to be paying off, as they are doubling in size each year and bosses say they have been rewarded for their recycling efforts.

Solent Plastics is a responsible company that supports recycling - we care about the environment! Our wide range of products includes recycling bins and eco-recycled plastic storage containers. We also supply used plastic boxes, crates and containers, passing on financial savings to customers, while helping the environment. We do NOT sell single-use plastics.