Think about all your clothing made of acrylic, nylon, and polyester. Yes, that means fleece, trousers, blouses, socks, and even your underwear. Did you know, every time you wash these synthetic fabrics, millions of microfibers are released into the water? Microfibers are too small to be filtered out by waste treatment plants, so they end up in our waterways and oceans, where they wreak havoc on marine animals and the environment.
However, could synthetic fibers be a wonderful thing as their production requires far less water than cotton and they do not require toxic pesticides to grow? Does that make them environmentally friendly? Sadly not.
The expansion of fast fashion would not be possible without polyester. Relatively cheap and easily available polyester is now used in about 60% of our clothes. However, if we take into account the fossil fuels used in its production, CO2 emissions for polyester clothing are nearly three times higher than for cotton! Our reliance on polyester is one of the reasons why the fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world; both in terms of its emissions-heavy production and the non-biodegrade addable waste it leaves behind.
One piece of clothing can release 700,000 fibers in a single wash
Once our clothes reach a washing machine, the synthetic fabrics release tiny strands: so-called microfibers. These are essentially microscopic pieces of plastic, just like the microbeads you find in cosmetics.
Every time you run your washing machine, hundreds of thousands of microfibers are flushed down the drain. And a good portion of it reaches beaches and oceans where they can remain for hundreds of years.
Swallowed by fish and other sea life, microplastic travels up the food chain, where they end up on our plates.
30% of ocean plastic pollution comes from microplastics
According to a new IUCN report, microplastics could be causing even more of a problem than we thought. Between 15% to 31% of marine plastic pollution could be from tiny particles released by household and industrial products, rather than larger plastic items that degrade once they reach the sea.
The IUCN calculates that 35% of this microplastic pollution comes from washing synthetic textiles. Europe and Central Asia alone dump the equivalent of 54 plastic bags worth of microplastics per person per week into the oceans.
So what can we do?
It is unrealistic to think that we can get rid of synthetic fibers altogether. Their use is too widespread and the sheer volume of clothing that we produce simply cannot be manufactured using only cotton and other natural fibers. And while the manufacturing industry is developing solutions; like more efficient filters for washing machines, they don’t yet tackle the problem.
We need to radically rethink the way we manufacture and products what we wear. Clothes should be produced without polluting the environment. These should be designed with durability in mind so that these can be recycled only after many years of use. As consumers, we have a big part to play in preventing microfibers from polluting the oceans, simply by buying less. If we reduce consumption, we reduce waste. It starts with being more conscious of the issue, and the rest should be simple.