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Rinse. Don't Repeat: How your washing machine is killing the ocean

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pebbles make ripples

Lenny Leemann

29 May 2017

Continuing our series of #pebblesmakeripples blogs, Lenny Leemann from eco-friendly online store The Coco looks at the microplastics-elephant in the room when it comes to ocean plastic and our clothes.

Making clothes out of recycled plastic is a trend we can all get behind, says Leemann, owner of new eco-friendly store, The Coco. Big brand names such as G-star Raw, Patagonia and Timberland haven all given plastic trash a new life. Adidas partnered with Parley for the Oceans to transform ocean waste like plastic debris and discarded fishing nets into a high-performance running shoe using 3D-printing technologies which won it a spot in the Beazley Designs of the Year Awards. (Click here for our feature on smaller brands recycling plastic bottles and fishing nets).

Design initiatives like these, whether fuelled by marketing ploys or a genuine interest in the environment, are shining a light on issue of plastic pollution. They also champion the need for increased creativity and innovation within material sourcing in efforts to become more sustainable.

But is there a possibility that repurposed plastic used in the fashion industry will end up back in the ocean?

Tiny particles of microplastic end up in the ocean and in our marine life

Mircoplastics are the real enemy when it come to plastic in the ocean

Leigh Morris

Mind the microplastics

Microplastics are tiny plastic particles that are washed off products like synthetic clothes, even those made from ocean plastics. A new study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found that up to 30% of plastic in the world’s oceans could be coming from microplastics.

This means that up to 2.85 million tonnes of microplastics are released into our waterways every year, two thirds of which are believed to be the direct result of washing synthetic clothing and tire abrasion. To put this into perspective, a study by the University of California Santa Barbara estimates that 100,000 people release the equivalent of 15,000 plastic bags into local waterways each day from washing their clothes. One synthetic fleece jacket releases an average of 1.7 grams of microfibers per wash.

100,000 people release the equivalent of 15,000 plastic bags into local waterways each day from washing their clothes

The IUCN report also found that in areas where efficient waste management systems are in place, such as in Europe and North America, microplastics actually contribute more to marine pollution than plastic waste. This is important because it means that plastic ocean pollution is not simply an issue of litter and waste management, but a problem arising from our daily activities.

Microplastics may seem small, but this is a big deal. Consumption of microplastics by marine life can be extremely harmful to their health, if not fatal. And microplastics carrying bacteria and toxins are able to travel up the food chain, potentially infecting the food we eat.  

By 2050 there might be more ocean plastic than fish

We need to fight plastic waste on two fronts - stopping litter and ending microplastics

Pixabay

So what do we do?

Initiatives to turn ocean plastics into clothing might not be the perfect solution to combatting ocean pollution, but it is definitely a step in the right direction. If shoppers can’t give up their love of synthetic clothing, more research and development should be encouraged within the fashion industry to create stronger synthetic materials that do not leach as much. Additionally, washing machine manufacturers could introduce special filters that trap microplastics.

But there are things you can do. Buy non-synthetic clothing – that means using natural materials like bamboo, cotton and wool. And very simply, wash your clothes less (for more on that click here).

Handmade at Kew info and tickets

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