What You Need To Know About Microplastics and Textiles
This article was originally published by Fibershed.
We are increasingly surrounded by plastic in our daily lives. It’s the clothing we wear, it’s the containers we eat from, furniture we sit on, and toys our children play with. Plastic has an enormous presence in mass-manufactured textiles, meaning that everything from our clothes to our curtains to our sheets are often petroleum-based. But it doesn’t have to be this way…
And it hasn’t always been this way. Plastic production has increased exponentially over the past several decades. In 1990, 1.74 billion tonnes of plastic was produced globally. That number jumped to 3.39 billion tonnes in the year 2000, and in 2015, global production of plastic reached 7.82 billion tonnes. Production of polyester, a plastic-based synthetic textile, has also skyrocketed, increasing by nearly 900% between 1980 and 2014.
Most of us are at least somewhat aware of plastic’s outsized negative impact on our planet, ecosystems, and health. Plastic is a product of the petroleum industry—which is responsible for enormous environmental harm—and up to 10% of humanity’s oil supply goes toward making plastic each year. Once manufactured, plastic continues to be hazardous both because of its longevity and the way it breaks down. A plastic bag can take up to 1,000 years to decompose in a landfill, and as most of the plastic we produce is single-use, our plastic addiction is literally piling up all over the planet. All plastic that has ever been manufactured (unless toxically incinerated), is still present within our Earth’s biosphere and ocean.
Petroleum-based plastic is dirty and extractive from start to finish. One major concern lies in the proliferation of microplastics, which are plastic pieces smaller than 5 millimeters but often microscopic. While many people are aware that microplastics can result from the breakdown of larger plastic (macroplastics) and from tiny plastic spheres used in manufacturing and personal care products, most people don’t realize that a majority of microplastic pollution is fiber, primarily derived from clothing and textiles. These small plastic particles travel through our air, soil, and waterways.
Why are microplastics in our environment such a huge problem? First, they’re easily ingestible by many organisms thanks to their small size, and ingestion of the chemicals in microplastics can lead to serious health problems. Microfibers are also capable of absorbing additional harmful pollutants. Because some of the smallest members of our food chain ingest these toxic chemicals, and because microplastics are floating in the air around us, avoiding the effects of microplastic pollution is extremely difficult.
A primary source of microplastic pollution is synthetic fibers, produced and promoted by the apparel and textile industry.
Microplastics and the Textile Industry
Plastic in textiles takes the form of synthetic fibers—most often, polyester. The majority of textiles manufactured today make use of synthetic fibers, and if we continue with the current economic and regulatory incentives, these fibers will be even more prevalent in the future. That increased reliance upon petroleum is a major environmental concern, in addition to the contribution of synthetic textiles to worldwide microplastic and microfiber pollution.
Textiles made from plastic fibers are responsible for microplastic fiber shedding at every stage of their lives: when they’re worn, when they’re washed, and when they’re disposed of. These microplastics enter the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. They’ve been found in some of the deepest depths of the ocean, in the placentas of unborn babies, in Arctic snow and Antarctic ice, and in our rainwater.
A study of microplastic pollution around the North Pole recently found that more than 73% of microfiber pollution can be traced back to polyester fibers that resembled PET from textiles.*
*PET (polyethylene terephthalate) is the chemical name for polyester, a clear, strong plastic used in food and beverage packaging and synthetic fibers.
The popularity of synthetic fabrics has made this concern even more pervasive. Yet, we often see synthetic fiber and textiles underemphasized when it comes to conversations about the systematic shifts required in the clothing industry to start truly addressing the microplastic pollution crisis.
However, there is a growing movement of individuals recognizing the threat of microplastics and more specifically, evaluating individual consumer choices in order to combat this challenge. Synthetic fibers and textiles are one of the main sources of microplastic pollution, making the choice an easy one.
How We Can Solve the Microplastics Problem
While some brands and organizations are celebrating innovations said to reduce microplastic pollution, many of these ideas are merely Band-Aid fixes that don’t address the full scale of the issue. Laundry filtration can address only a fraction of the microplastic emissions generated by clothing. Textiles manufactured from recycled plastic, such as recycled polyester, are no better from a microplastics perspective. In fact, these textiles actually increase the prevalence of environmental microplastics, as recycled polyester has been shown to emit more microplastics than new polyester.
Reducing or eliminating our overreliance on synthetic textiles and reducing our textile consumption and waste overall, while strengthening infrastructure and support for healthy natural fiber textile systems, is the best method for a holistic solution. Textile producers and consumers must prioritize the use of natural fibers. Not only do natural fiber systems not release microplastics into the environment, they require less washing, and, with the proper support, they also can address key issues including biodiversity enhancement, climate stability, and right livelihoods.
Consumers have enormous power in this movement. By choosing 100% natural fibers such as wool, alpaca, cotton, and hemp, and avoiding plastic-based synthetic fibers such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic, shoppers can vote for a cleaner environment with their pocketbooks. Seeking untreated fibers and natural dyes (while not easy to do given current market choices), is also a critical element when it comes to protecting our oceans, biosphere, and health.
We know that natural fiber systems need significant investment to become truly land regenerating and non-toxic. Natural fibers, dyes, and cleaner chemistries have had to compete with fossil carbon based plastics industries. Fast fashion and performance-based textile industries continue to drive the use of inexpensive plastics within our clothing. The continued push to compete with synthetic fibers has driven natural fiber agricultural systems to either disappear or follow suit and maximize earnings while externalizing costs. The only way to secure investments in natural fiber and dye systems that can regenerate land is to support their existence and develop incentives that strengthen the infrastructure that delivers them to the marketplace.
Critically, big players in the textile industry must be held accountable. State and federal policies supporting reductions in synthetic textile production and consumption, taxes on virgin plastic manufacturing, incentives for natural fiber and textile producers, and holding textile producers and manufacturers accountable for costs of management and end-of-life treatment for their products are all potential steps in the right direction.
Finally, everybody who is concerned about microplastic pollution can push this movement forward by talking about it; talk to friends, post on social media, and ask questions of your local leaders. Even brief but targeted comments to policymakers will have a large impact.
Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made | ScienceAdvances
Preferred Fiber & Materials Market Report 2021 | TextileExchange
Degradation Rates of Plastics in the Environment | ACS Publications
Microplastic fibers — Underestimated threat to aquatic organisms? | Science Direct
Pervasive distribution of polyester fibres in the Arctic Ocean is driven by Atlantic inputs | Nature Communications