Fashion today is about obsession with outward image and appearance. Rarely do we as consumers consider what’s on the inside: the hundreds of thousands of fibres that make up our clothing which have led to an estimated 1.4 million trillion plastic fibres in the ocean.
The fashion industry itself has a huge impact on the environment. It is responsible for 20 per cent of global wastewater, 10 per cent of carbon emissions and huge amounts of waste. Every second, one garbage truck full of textiles is landfilled or incinerated. If that wasn't enough, our clothing is also polluting the ocean with plastic.
About 60 per cent of material made into clothing is plastic, which includes polyester, acrylic and nylon textiles. These synthetic fabrics are lightweight, durable, affordable and flexible. But here’s the catch: every time they're washed, they shed tiny plastic fibres called microfibres, a form of microplastics—tiny pieces up to five millimetres in size.
Laundry alone causes around half a million tonnes of plastic microfibres to be released into the ocean every year—the equivalent of almost three billion polyester shirts. This happens because water treatment plants let up to 40 per cent of microfibres they receive into lakes, rivers and the ocean due to their small size. Most treatment plants are not mandated to capture microfibres.
Microfibres and other microplastics, which make their way up the food chain when they are mistaken for food by fish and other marine animals, often carry concerning contaminants such as toxic pesticides and industrial chemicals. The effects of microplastic ingestion on marine life are catastrophic; they have caused starvation, endocrine disruption, stunted growth in some species and broken down digestive systems.
“One of the problems is plastic ingestion at all levels of the food chain, which may pass plastic to larger animals and humans. The question is ‘Is it acceptable to us to end up eating plastic?’” says UN Environment’s marine environment expert Heidi Savelli. “I think it’s a human right to not have to ingest plastic.”
While extensive research on the effects on plastic ingestion on humans is under way, it's clear humans consume plastic regularly. A recent study conducted on eight people from around the world found microplastics in all test subjects’ waste. They have been found in everyday foods such as beer, honey, sugar and about 90 per cent of table salt brands tested by a group of scientists.
Worse yet, the amount of polyester produced annually is expected to triple between 2007—the year polyester became the world's dominant fibre—and 2025, according to Tecnon Orbichem, a chemical data company.
So, what can we do?
Significantly reducing microfibre release has two parts, according to a 2017 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Primarily, designers and manufacturers will need to change the way clothing is made and develop new materials.
Fibre length and fabric density are two factors that determine the amount of microfibres that will break free during washing. Some finishing treatments such as coating have also proven to reduce shedding by up to 50 per cent. Reducing brushing, a technique used to create fleece, and replacing traditional cutting methods with ultrasound or laser cutting could also limit microfibre release.
Secondly, technologies to capture microfibres which are unavoidably released must increase in scale and efficiency, according to the report. Current technologies are available for purchase, but place an onus on consumers to lessen the impact of clothing on the environment.
Some things people—and industries such as hospitality—can do to limit microfibre shedding during washing include:
- Washing less. Fabrics that have been washed many times will shed more microfibres than they did when new.
- Front load washing machines have been found to reduce microfibre shedding.
- Washing bags such as the one developed by guppyfriend can reduce microfibre release by 86 per cent and captures the microfibres that do break free.
- The Cora Ball can be added to loads of laundry to collect microfibres. The company says that if 10 per cent of U.S. households used Cora Ball, it would prevent the equivalent of 30 million water bottles from entering waterways per year.
- Retrofitting old laundry machines with a microfibre-catching device, such as the Lint LUV-R washing machine discharge filter, can capture fibres before they enter the environment.
“While there are things consumers can do to limit microfibre release from clothing, extra effort shouldn’t be on the consumer, it should be on manufacturers,” says Savelli. She notes that once microfibres are captured, there is no guarantee they won’t find their way into the environment through other means.
The new United Nations Alliance on Sustainable Fashion, a partnership between UN Environment and other UN agencies, will officially launch at the UN Environment Assembly in March 2019. The Alliance will target the private sector, UN Member States, non-governmental organizations and other relevant stakeholders to create a unified movement for a more sustainable fashion industry.
Ultimately, the world’s dependence on synthetic materials must change to adequately reduce plastic microfibre release. But until new materials are designed, reducing shedding and capturing fibres before they enter the environment can limit potential harm to marine life and humans.
During the United Nations Environment Assembly, from 11 to 19 March 2019, UN Environment is urging people to Think Beyond and Live Within. Join the debate on social media using #SolveDifferent to share your stories and see what others are doing to ensure a sustainable future for our planet.
For more information, please contact Heidi Savelli