Your Next Step to Cutting Plastics Could be Hanging in Your Closet
A lot of the clothes we wear release microplastics that are polluting our oceans.
When we hear about the issue of plastic in our oceans, it’s easy to picture plastic bottles floating past ships and sea turtles mistakenly eating plastic bags. In reality, we often can’t see a lot of the plastic in the ocean and around 35 percent of it has come from our closets.
As we enter the colder months in the year, changes in temperature leads to changes in outfits, and jumpers, cardigans and all the knitwear in between are coming out of the wardrobe. The materials that your clothes are more commonly made out of — polyester, nylon, acrylic and other synthetic fibers — are actually made of plastic and are all derived from crude oil. Thanks to their versatility and cheap cost, synthetic fibers are the perfect materials to keep the fast fashion machine well oiled and produce a wide range of clothing items, from athletic wear to winter clothes.
Some clothes, particularly knitwear, are known for shedding and pilling which can be annoying as it is. However, as you learn more about what your clothes are made out of and how those fibers interact with the environment, it becomes more important to consider how your closet is impacting our planet.
Whenever these clothes are washed and worn, they shed very small pieces of themselves and are called microplastics. As described in their name, microplastics are very small plastic pieces that are 5mm (or 0.2 inches) in length or less. Despite their size, microplastics and microfibers in general cause a lot of damage to the environment. Plastics of any size take anywhere from hundreds to a thousand of years to breakdown and in the ocean they can be consumed by marine life.
Not only are microplastics harmful to wildlife because they are mistakenly eaten, but they can also absorb harmful chemicals before they reach the ocean. Starting from the manufacturing phase, chemicals such as plasticisers (to improve flexibility), antimicrobial agents (to stop microorganisms growing) and flame retardants are added to the fibers. Once clothes are put in the laundry, the microfibers are washed away in the washing machine, and are too small to be filtered out through the water and sewage system, instead carrying whatever chemicals they have absorbed along the way into larger bodies of water.
Once in the ocean, these chemicals can get into the bloodstream of any animals that ingest the microplastics and lead to physical injuries, digestion problems, and even impact on growth and reproduction. Around 73% of fish at mid-ocean depths in the Northwest Atlantic have been found to have microplastics in their guts. Microplastics have even been found to reach areas as deep as the Mariana Trench and as isolated as the ice in Antartica.
Ultimately the entire ecosystem can be affected and the small amount of microfibers consumed by the smallest of animals increases as it goes up the food chain. Eventually these particles find their way back to us — through food and drink. A paper in PLOS found that “the average person ingests over 5,800 particles of synthetic debris”, most of which are plastic. It is estimated that people in Europe who eat a lot shellfish like oysters, clams and mussels can eat around 11,000 microplastic particles each year. People who drink mostly bottled water may be consuming up to 90,000 microplastics more per year compared to the 4000 consumed by those drinking tap water.
The issue of plastic pollution is one that needs to be tackled from an industry and manufacturing level, but there are changes that individuals can do to reduce the impact of their clothing. Only buying clothes that are made of natural fibers like cotton, linen or wool would be an ideal way to reduce the amount of microplastics that your wardrobe sheds, but it is not always practical due to cost and accessibility.
There are quite a few other ways to cut down your microplastics pollution and here are some simple tips to get you started.
- Lower your wash cycle temperatures
Washing your clothes at a cooler temperature is often a more gentle cycle that reduces the likelihood of microfibers being shed.
2. Fill up your washing machine
Microplastic fibers are released with the help of friction, and by filling up your washing machine rather than just washing a few items at a time, your clothes don’t have as much space to rub against each other and shed microfibers.
3. Reduce your spin cycle speeds
By now you you probably understand that friction equals shedding, and so reducing the spin speed on your washing machine means that your clothes are shaken up and are shedding less. This also applies when drying your clothes, as air drying causes much less shedding than a tumbler dryer.
4. Ditch your microfiber cloths
This one might be surprising as microfiber cloths have been hailed as an eco-friendly fix for all things cleaning for a while. Unfortunately, these cloths are made out of synthetic fibers which do shed and end up polluting the environment.
5. Keep your clothes for longer and buy second-hand
Clothes shed more plastic within their first few washes and so frequently updating your wardrobe with brand new items increases the amount of plastic you send into the environment. Buying second-hand clothes is a great way to ensure that clothes that are new to you aren’t harming the planet as much.
6. Consider a getting a filter
Putting a filter bag like the Guppyfriend in with your clothes is a great way to reduce the microfibers that pollute our waters. You can also attach a filter (like Lint LUV-R or Filtrol 160) to your washing machine to catch the microfibers in your laundry before they are washed away into the water system.
Reducing plastic waste has been a priority for many communities and individuals for years now. Unfortunately, the use of plastic has become intertwined with aspects of our lives that most of us have never considered. If we are serious about cutting our plastic pollution, it is time to look beyond the cutlery, bottles and containers that we typically associate with plastics and find ways to make other everyday items less plastic-dependent.