Fashion has often found it difficult to stay on the ethical side of environmental and human rights concerns. News about poor working conditions and environmentally damaging effluent from factories is so common it’s passé. But another ecological threat is far more entwined in the fabric of the industry, and far less PR coverable. While activists against devastation to the environment brandish their pickets with images of dying ecosystems, rabbits wearing mascara and statistics of the cancer rates of fashion factory workers, the wash they left to run at home is sending millions of environmentally toxic and permanent plastic microfibres into the Earth waterways in one spin cycle.
Made from petroleum spun into strands less than half the width of human hair, microfibres pervade our homes, wardrobes and oceans. Artificial enough to earn trademark rights and glossy brand names like Lycra, Spandex, and Kevlar, these fabrics have been developed by chemical companies like Dupont, rather than a textile mill. A far cry from the static inducing poly-suits of the 80’s that made family gatherings more sweaty and painful than they already were, today’s advancements in textile technology have imitated the feel and lustre of natural fabrics in synthetic form. Able to be structurally edited for desirable properties in specific applications, artificial fibres make cloths more absorbent, carpets more durable, fleeces softer, sportswear sweat repellant, coats water resistant, and above all else, offer this at a fraction of the cost of natural materials.
As our population expands and advances so is the demand for textiles, which is set to double over the next 30 years. As the market for natural fabrics has stayed at a constant low since 1992, the growth is expected to be met by artificial materials, with over 90% of all future textiles made from polyester. The swelling demand is attributed to the lower amount of resources required to make a roll of synthetic fabric than natural, which makes it far cheaper to produce and ecologically speaking, less harmful.
This may sound counter-intuitive but stay with me here. As a whole, the textile industry is guilty of significant environmental implications, from intensive energy demand to heat water and air for laundering, to toxic chemicals for dyeing and printing. Due to the extreme methods required for manufacture, there is no fibre available in the world that is both high performing and environmentally benign. However, the cotton plant being an infamously thirsty crop requires up to 29’000 litres of water for each kilo. It is extremely susceptible to pests, requiring conventional (non-organic) cotton to use 25% of the worlds insecticide market, and 11% of global pesticide sales, despite taking up only 2.4% of the worlds arable land. This intensive use of resources in cotton cultivation has already been responsible for the large-scale devastation of ecosystems such as the Aral Sea in Central Asia and the deteriorating health and livelihoods of its residents. By comparison, polyester requires little to no water and the toxic chemicals needed in production are far less likely to be released into the environment. Though as with most environmental issues with petroleum-derived products, the environmental impact is measured most heavily by its end of life, rather than the beginning.
As the remnants clogging up your washing machine and tumble dryer filters show, the fibres that make up your clothes don’t stay there. Millions of these fabric tendrils are released into water systems in one load of washing. While fibres from natural materials will biodegrade in the environment, these microscopic plastic fibres, 700’000 from the average washing load, will not.
Attributing for up to 85% of human-made flotsam along the world’s beaches, microfibres become a permanent fixture of the marine environment, endanger aquatic life and the food chain in true Blue Planet 2-esque fashion. These microscopic particles cannot be detected and removed easily as with whole products like bottles and straws, so they saturate oceans, rivers and streams in unmeasurably large amounts. Until we know where and how much of these plastics are present in waterways, we cant fully understand the true extent of their impacts on the aquatic ecosystem. However, it is understood that the concentration of microplastic particles in the marine environment means that organisms ingest more than they can excrete, allowing these synthetic fibres to weave themselves into animals stomachs where they accumulate in the body. This lowers their immune systems and starves them, absorbing toxic concentrations of pollutants and leaching chemicals such as BPA as they degrade, which moves up the food chain. These chemicals are lethal to marine animals, and possible carcinogens to humans and such have been found in seafood and salt sold for human consumption.
These concentrations are from the 65 million microfibre threads released into water systems every day, just 2% of the plastic fragments sent to wastewater treatment systems. Of the 98% caught by filters, these are processed with the rest of the sludge from our drains and turned into fertiliser where they are dumped directly back onto our land, which is thought to be the primary reservoir for microfibres.
These plastic microfibres are far more pervasive than microbeads and less easy to regulate. As pressure on the fashion industry makes way for the fast fashion, encouraging fashion brands to push out new lines every six weeks, in conjunction with demand for cheaper price tags to fall in line with stagnant wages, clothes manufacturers are forced to use more affordable fabrics for their products. And as the warming climate threatens the sensitive growing conditions of the cotton crop, and the growing population designates more land for food crops rather than textile, returning to natural fibres is becoming a distant and expensive option. It’s not unwarranted to panic that our pressure on the textile industry spell outs ecological disaster.
Mitigation measures need to be developed and undertaken by producers, manufacturers, waste managers, policy makers and consumers to combat plastic microfibre pollution.
Apparel manufacturers need to analyse their fabrics and develop natural materials to put less resource pressure on the environment through innovative farming methods and perhaps genetic modification. At the same time, demand for synthetic fabric must be met with new technological approaches that reduce shedding. Outdoor clothing companies whose foundations lie in the environmental arena are among the first industry to acknowledge microfibres as a threat. Patagonia conducted a microfibre study in 2015 and found that a single Patagonia fleece jacket sheds as many as 250,000 synthetic fibers in one wash. As a result, they and other outdoor clothing companies have pledged to innovate solutions, including new research into yarn and fabric constructions to determine whether better design can address micro-fibre shedding. To confront this issue wholly, however, apparel companies are far from the only stakeholders.
Washing machine manufacturers need to take into account their filters as the point of entry for these fibres into the environment. As nations become more advanced, the use of the appliances is set to rise from 30% to 60% globally, and with humanmade fibres as the frontrunner of all future textiles, these appliances need to be able to prevent the additional increase of microfibres from entering the environment
Investment in developing wastewater facilities is crucial to ensure 100% of microfibre pollution can be captured, and better waste management afterwards. As the primary problem stems from the size of the fibres, there should be sanctions in place to collect and combine the strands and dispose of them appropriately.
And most crucially, policies need to be put in place, as they have done with microbeads, to make these changes compulsory across all these industries. A self-regulating system does not apply when this environmental threat is so prevailing.
And as consumers, we need to take responsibility for the fabrics we buy, wear and wash. As the actor in all of these scenarios, it’s your laundry day that is sending seven hundred thousand microfibres into the water systems. Avoiding the use of detergents with high PH, powder detergents and oxidising agents, and washing in cold water and using water softeners can help reduce the number of fibres shed. Buy a guppy-friend by Langbrett which catches the majority of microfibres, or just use a cotton pillowcase. Or simply rejoice in laziness and call it saving the planet; don’t wash your clothes so often.