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The Trouble with Plastics in Our Clothing

How plastic fibres are making it so difficult to recycle clothing and what is being done about it

We all have some understanding of ‘fast fashion’ and how it’s harming the planet by now – it’s the buzzword of the last few years since we’ve hit a climate crisis. Brands such as H&M and Primark are now offering ‘drop off bins’ for clothing recycling, which might seem like a really good way to combat fast fashion – but as your average consumers, we are mostly in the dark about what happens once we’ve sent our clothing to get recycled. It can be assumed that it gets turned into new clothing as that is what we are led to believe, with high street stores launching ‘sustainable’ lines while also taking in our old clothes, but is that really the case?

Only 1% of our clothing is fully recycled - and only 1-3% makes it to charity shop racks

Firstly, it is important to understand what our clothes are made from. Most of our ‘fast fashion’ clothing will be made from materials such as polyester or nylon, cheap and easy to produce – but also plastic, derived from crude oils. Unfortunately, these materials are low quality and make them harder to recycle.

This is partly due to the large mixture of materials found within modern clothing, such as a blend of fibres, dyes, plastic buttons and metal zips. In order to properly recycle the millions of tonnes of fabrics that have found their way to recycling plants each year, it would require a very skilled workforce and be very labour intensive. Breaking down the clothing into its rawest forms would require far more processes and chemicals than natural fibres, thus making the resulting material very expensive. Because of this, less than 1% of clothing made from plastics is chemically recycled back into raw materials.

Materials that do get recycled are often ‘downcycled’, shredded into a fibre used for insulation or rags, therefore only getting in a few extra uses.

Clothing sent to charity unfortunately has a similar fate, only 1-3% of clothing sent to Oxfam’s Wastesaver clothing plant in Batley, Yorkshire goes back to the UK's charity shops. Of course, this all applies to other textiles like bed sheets and towels that people wouldn’t even think to donate.

So, what happens to materials that aren’t sold at charity shops or recycled? Sadly, as you may have guessed, they end up either in landfill or in the incinerator – putting plastics back into our environment.

All of this is bleak to think about, so what is being done, and what can we do to help?

We can first look at some really exciting developments in the world of science and fashion that have been made in the last few years, to eliminate our use of plastic in the fashion industry entirely.

Creating biodegradable protein fibre

Companies like QMilk are looking at creating a protein fibre much like silk or wool from milk. This might sound bizarre at first glance, but when you consider that roughly 340,000 tonnes of milk are wasted each year in the UK alone is begins to be exciting, as it combats both fast fashion and food waste. The milk is dehydrated (much like when creating powdered milk), and from that dehydration process the milk proteins and extracted and put into a machine that spins the substance into yarn, which can be then turned into fabric. This would eliminate the need for plastics in fabric, and because it's made from an otherwise waste product, would hopefully be cheap to produce, and encourage brands to adopt this type of fabric. Also, the fibre would be biodegradable and not leave plastics in landfill as typical clothing does.

Other companies such as Algaeing and AlgaLife (who won H&M’s Global Change Award in 2018) are exploring using algae grown with solar energy to create a natural fibre and environmentally friendly dyes. Like QMilk, the fabric would biodegradable and therefore would not leave plastics in our environment.

Fungi is the way forward?

Another exciting branch of research taking place right now (headed by Carol Lin at the City University of Hong Kong) is looking at the Aspergillus Niger fungi, as it produces an enzyme that can break down cotton blends by breaking down the cotton into a glucose syrup – leaving pure polyester, ready to be reused and made into new clothing. H&M has now begun working with Lin’s research group to reproduce this recycling method on a larger scale. If it succeeds, this could help eliminate our plastic waste in clothing and make it far easier to recycle rather than it going to landfill.

As well as keeping our eye on these exciting developments, we, as the consumer can do other things to help stop the mounting pile of global plastic waste found in our textiles. A really easy place to start is with the clothes you already own, by making repairs to small holes or tears in your clothes, you could keep them from landfill for years to come – reducing the need to buy new.

Unfollowing and Unsubscribing from fast fashion companies and influences paid to push their products is another great way to prevent yourself from unnecessary spending (and plastic wardrobe clutter!) as you won't constantly be encouraged to spend on clothes made with plastic synthetic materials.

Lastly, try not to get too disheartened about the situation and remember – the whole world is working together to solve the problem!


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