Your fashion habits still might be polluting the sea, even as you move toward sustainability
Over the last decade, sustainable brands have taken over the fashion landscape. If you’re reading this, chances are you probably buy from these brands yourself! However, despite all our efforts, there has continued to be a significant rise in microplastics found in our oceans. Though they may be small, microplastics have a profoundly negative effect on the ocean ecosystem, harming marine life and sneaking into the water we drink. This rise can be attributed to a few big trends in fashion: Athleisure and clothing made from recycled plastics.
These fibers are so small, just a few micrometers long, that you’d probably never notice them. In fact, they’re so small that they can’t even collect in your washing machine. This has led to such a large number of microfibers in the ocean that some estimates place them at number one on the list of ocean plastic pollutants. They may be small, but they’re a big problem for us to tackle. These tiny bits of plastic pose a daunting environmental challenge; they enter back into our food chain via seafood and common table salt, and recent studies indicate that it's also raining microplastics.
While nylon and polyester are the most common synthetic fabrics used for making clothing, there are a few others that you may find hanging in your closet. Be sure to check the content label of your clothes for acrylic and spandex (AKA Lycra or elastane) too.
Sustainable Fashion and Plastic
Some brands have made it their goal to incorporate ocean plastics into their products. Clothing made of these recycled plastics has proven to be a consistently growing market. A number of well-known brands like Patagonia, Adidas, or Everlane are touting the advantages of cleaning our oceans by recycling discarded bottles and fishing nets into new clothing. Nets become yarn, which is then woven to make recycled nylon and polyester fabric. It’s an appealing concept, but these clothes still release microfibers on each wash. The net result of recycling ocean plastic into clothing is still more plastic - in the form of microplastics. We may have thought we were making a difference by buying clothing that helps our oceans, but sustainable fashion isn’t so simple. No new plastic is a good strategy, but we have to work on keeping any plastic out of our waterways permanently!
The problem might seem large, but don’t fret too much: There’s plenty that you can do to help turn things around. Here are a number of productive tips for the eco-conscious consumer:
1. Buy fewer synthetic clothes
Before you purchase anything, make sure to read the fabric composition of the garment. Natural fabric is almost always more expensive than synthetic fabric. However, good quality clothing made with only natural fabrics (cotton, hemp, linen, viscose) is sure to last you a very long time, causes minimal microfiber shedding and microfibers are biodegradable. This slow fashion approach is more forward-thinking, benefitting both you and our planet for years to come.
2. Wash less
Most synthetic clothing has sweat-wicking and odor-free properties that allow for two to three wears before you have to throw them in the wash, and denim is ideally washed once every few months. By washing less, you’re actively minimizing the number of microfibers you could be producing. Not to mention, going a bit DIY with your washing can be fun! You can wash out your clothes by hand with soap and water, brush your dry clean clothes, or use a steamer instead. No steamer? Hang your clothes in the bathroom while you shower. Finally, choosing not to use aggressive detergents will make your clothes much happier and increases their lifespan. It’s a win-win all around!
3. Wash in colder water
When washing, don’t be afraid to chill out! 30C/86F degrees is the perfect washing temperature. Hot water weakens the yarn and causes more microfiber shedding, so give your clothes a nice cold shower. The eco-wash setting is even better if you have it; it uses a smaller amount of water at a colder temperature than the typical wash cycle. Shorter wash cycles also equal less time sitting around and waiting for your clothes, so that’s the third big bonus in helping out the planet.
4. Prevent abrasive action
Microfiber shedding is exacerbated by abrasive washing action, where synthetic fibers rub against harder fibers like denim. If you wash your jeans with your darks, this may be an issue for you. Luckily, this friction can definitely be prevented with these four steps:
Unfortunately, your clothes are not friendly with one another. Hard fabrics like denim cause friction and increase fiber breakage in synthetic fabrics. To prevent this, wash your synthetic items separate from jeans. If you’re up to the task, try hand washing or steaming your synthetics instead!
Reduce your washers spin cycle as much as possible. It might be fun to sit there and watch your clothes spin around and around, but reducing the speed will reduce the amount of microplastics being shed. The spinning is mostly there to keep your clothes from taking on excess water, but air-drying your clothes will get rid of that anyway. As mentioned above, keep the wash short and simple!
Always wash full loads. This will reduce friction between the washing machine's drum and the garments themselves. You’ll also save water and energy, which is a plus if you’re washing from home. Everyone loves minimizing their utility bill, so do it!
Use liquid detergent. Pods and powder prevent less friction than the liquid form. Tide Pods are a neat new trend, but regular old soap is forever reliable.
5. Use a filter
You can catch microfibers by using Guppyfriend washing bag or the Cora Ball. You can put your synthetic garments in the Guppyfriend bag, which then catches the microfibers while in the wash. The Cora Ball, on the other hand, bounces around in the drum with all of your clothes, catching every little fiber it comes into contact with. After using either of these guys, scrape them out and dispose of the fibers in the trash where they belong. They’re both super easy to use, and it’s kind of cool to see how many fibers they can catch per wash. If you check the label of your favorite shirt and it contains synthetic fibers, try using either product before throwing it in the wash. You can also buy a washing machine with a built-in microfiber filter if that’s in your budget.
6. Dispose responsibly
Ensuring that we dispose of our clothing at the end of its useful life is another important way to introduce fewer microplastics into the environment. Buying with brands and retailers who have an upcycling process in place will ensure that your old clothing can start its life cycle anew. Alternatively, consider donating your clothes and/or find NGOs in your state/city working to reduce the environmental impact of clothing.
To play our part, we can all avoid buying new synthetic clothes. That’s the easy part. However, working toward true environmental progress in fashion goes much deeper than that. We can’t just say we bought the newest recycled-waste product from Adidas and check out for the day. Instead, try viewing sustainability as part of your everyday routine. This is a lifestyle, not a trend. No one said this would be an easy journey, but it will be well worth the energy you put in to keep our oceans clean.