Humans started to turn plastic into textiles in the 1950s, when DuPont introduced polyester, a synthetic textile made from a petroleum by-product. Like most good horror stories, it started off as ‘this seems like a pretty great idea’ until things eventually go out of control.
What is a synthetic textile like Polyester?
Polyester caught on with us for a number of reasons. The fast production of colours and patterns led to experiments with fast, cheap, colourful clothing lines. Fashion creativity did get a bit of a fillip, basically the birth of the disco fashion aesthetic, but it came at a price that’s yet to hit us fully.
Synthetic also became hugely popular in industrial clothing, such as uniforms. They were fast drying and more durable than natural fibers. Cost-effective with a few drawbacks. They were flammable, itchy, trapped body odour and turned smelly. But synthetics became acceptable in fashion and remain widely-used. You find them in undergarments, sports wear, fast fashion, and on the runway.
What Happens when we wash Synthetic Clothing?
As these clothes made from synthetic fibres get washed they break down in the washing cycle releasing tiny bits of plastic into the water system. Like all things, they physically break down over time. The nature of laundry being what it is they’re likely to shed a bit just like the rest of your clothes only what they’re shedding isn’t fluffy cotton it is bits of a non-biodegradable synthetic material.
If you have read the eco-horror stories about plastic being found in the Arctic and plastic in the rain then you will recall that it’s about how our water system is so connected. When we release plastic micro-particles into the water cycle or the food chain, they make their way back out to the rivers, oceans, the atmosphere, and sometimes back in to our bodies. Microscopic and invisible to the naked-eye, their tiny size makes them difficult to detect and manage.
Today all kinds of synthetic textiles are in use including some that are part of the circular economy. There are textiles being produced from recycled PET bottles as well as from nylon fishing nets. While it’s better to get them out than leaving them as trash in landfills and in the ocean, it doesn’t change the fact that both of these will still release microfibres when put through a laundry cycle after you have finished your daily workout or danced for six hours in a stylish funky print dress.
How bad is it to have plastic in you, really, you wonder? Where’s the conclusive proof that this is a bad thing? We all must have some plastic in us by now via something or the other..but it’s certainly not the way nature intended things to be. While there aren’t any widespread occurrences of freaky ocean mutations caused by plastic yet (freaky eco-terror sidenote: there have been for oil spills) there’s definitely one study that freaks me out a little about plastic which says that plastic in the ocean definitely harms the bacteria that produces 10% of the planet’s oxygen. That’s a pretty grave allegation and one that must be considered seriously.
How do you control the spread of harmful microfibres?
So how do you mitigate the harm you’re doing if you wash a lot of synthetics? The old saying goes here, prevention is better than cure, so use some kind of a filter.
The Guppyfriend Washing Bag is basically a high-tech mesh bag that you put your synthetics into while washing them which traps the microfibers.
The Cora Ball was a cool product that you will also read about. Made from 100% recycled plastic and inspired by the natural form of coral, the Cora Ball has arms which capture plastic fuzz that is released in the laundry cycle. You just toss it into the wash along with your load. The ball hasn’t quite found a user base that can endorse it as yet, so the jury is out on that one.
The same blogpost endorses the Filtrol Filter, which seems like a logical scale-up from a washing bag. The filter is attached to the pipe that takes the dirty water out from your machine, and traps a whole lot of undesirable gunk, including microfibers.
PlanetCare is a company that started in Slovenia which specialises in making filters for removing microfibers. They are making them for homes as well as industrial facilities. Their compelling message is that for the price of one cup of coffee a week you can stop sending plastic fibres into the environment.
Others solutions will be sure to come in time. Scientists are diligently studying methods of prevention. Their discoveries will no doubt lead to more effective and cheaper solutions. As consumers living the lives we can choose to lead we must be aware of what’s what. Recycled synthetic textile is not sustainable in an environmental sense unless we take responsibility for the microfibres. Fashion may not be the wisest place for a circular economy in plastics. Extrapolating even further, perhaps plastic needs to be re-called for good.