Let’s be honest: no-one wants to read another article about how plastic is polluting the world. It’s depressing, and makes us question why anyone ever thought inventing it was a good idea. By now we're all painfully aware of the damage plastic does to our environment, oceans, animals, and even ourselves. But are we aware of the plastic hidden inside our favourite clothes?
Some fun facts about plastic pollution
In case you’re not up to date:
Globally, we produce a staggering 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year. This is almost equal to the weight of the human population, and continues to increase exponentially
Of the eight+ billion tonnes of plastic produced since the early 1950s, only 9% has been recycled. While 12% has been incinerated (which often causes more harm than good), the other 79% has accumulated in landfills, rivers, oceans, and the natural environment
Every year, eight million tonnes of plastic ends up in our oceans; that’s the equivalent of a truckload every minute. This rate of pollution is so bad that researchers are now warning of a very-real possibility that by 2050, our oceans will contain more plastic than fish
And if these statistics are surprising you, because hey, there aren’t that many plastic bottles on Brighton beach, right? It’s because global inequality – another big way we’ve messed up as humans – massively effects the distribution of plastic pollution. Western countries like the UK, US, and Canada systematically export their plastic waste to developing countries in Africa and Asia, thus shielding the privileged Western eye from the full impact of plastic pollution at the expense of those living in coastal areas such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand.
Obviously, we use a lot of plastic. What's not always so obvious is where we're using it.
The hidden plastic in our clothes
Surprisingly, plastic plays a significant role in the fashion industry. While some of the influence of plastic in our fashion is overt – just think back to the plastic hair accessories, sunglasses, jelly shoes, Barbie dolls and Mean Girls' ‘The Plastics’ of the early 2000s – some of the other ways plastic has been (quite literally) woven into our fashion are much more covert.
One such way is the startling prolificacy of plastic microfibres in our clothes. First introduced into textile production in the 1950s by chemical company DuPont, these tiny plastic polymers now make up over 60% of the materials used to produce our clothes, with polyester, nylon, and rayon as the main synthetic culprits.
A 2017 Ellen MacArthur Foundation report links the increase in plastic-infused clothes to the modern fast fashion demand for “Quicker turnaround of new styles, increased number of collections per year, and lower prices.” This demand is so big, in fact, that an incredible 65 million tons of plastic was produced solely to make textile fibres in 2016 alone, constituting 20% of the years’ global plastic production. The fact that these plastic microfibres are primarily woven into fast fashion garments, over half of which are discarded within a year, amplifies the rate at which these non-decomposable fibres are created and consequently wasted.
Although these plastic microfibres are barely big enough to see - each one less than five millimetres long and resembling a single strand of hair - they nevertheless have a unmissable impact on our environment. The tiny fibres shed constantly from our clothing when we do our laundry, roll up our sleeves and even when we're just walking around. These microplastics are then released into the water cycle through washing machines and water-treatment plants, which aren't equipped with filters small enough to catch the fibres. Shockingly, scientists estimate that up to 94% of our oceans' plastic pollution comes from these invisible microplastics, meaning the visible mountains of floating bags, bottles and wrappers represent just 6% of the total plastic waste. Concerningly, another study finds that “Once plastics are in the ocean environment, there is no effective way to remove them” .
Frequently contaminated with toxic pesticides and chemicals, ingested microplastics have disastrous effects on marine life, including starvation, poisoning and the rupture of digestive systems. And this isn't just something that fish should be concerned about; according to a recent study, humans ingest roughly five grams of microplastics every week, adding up to over 250g each year! That's like eating a kilogram of plastic every time the Olympics come around...aka, too much plastic.
No matter how good we might look, I don't think any of us want to spend the rest of our lives polluting the planet - or ourselves - with the plastic in our clothes. Luckily, there are many forward-thinking fashion brands creating recycled clothes that won't cost the earth. Here are some internationally-shipping companies to have a look at:
everlane.com: With a goal to take recycled plastic clothing into the mainstream, this 'radically transparent' brand has set out to eradicate virgin (new) plastic from their supply chain. So far, Everlane's 'ReNew' collection has repurposed over 9 million plastic water bottles from beaches and landfills into stylish synthetic outerwear. And with 10% off your first order, you can't go wrong
Veja: This French footwear brand is taking their trainers to the next level with the introduction of a 'B-Mesh' (Bottle Mesh) material made from - you guessed it - recycled plastic bottles. With the products made from eco-friendly materials, and even providing vegan options, these fairtrade shoes get a yes from me
girlfriend collective: For something a little more personal, this ethical activewear company creates sports bras and leggings made from recycled polyester (from plastic bottles collected in Taiwan) and recycled nylon (from old fishing nets). Providing unparalleled transparency, organic dyes, and sizes ranging from 2XS to 6XL, this brand truly has something for everyone
With our understanding of the global impacts of the interconnected plastic and fashion industries constantly growing, we now have the option to choose clothes that won't contribute to the epidemic of plastic pollution. As ever, the biggest changes we can make are in our closest environment, and the clothes we wear on our backs is about as close as you can get - so choose wisely.