Are Our Clothes A Plastic Catastrophe?

Do you know how much plastic is in your clothes? Here's what you can do about it. LIVE

We all know we need to move away from fast fashion.

But it’s not just the amount of clothing we get through that’s a landfill timebomb.

Our reliance on manmade fibres means we’re wearing, and washing, an increasing amount of plastic.

In our latest #pebblesmakeripples guest blog, Jo Salter, from ethical fashion brand Where Does It Come From, considers the plastic catastrophe that’s lurking in our wardrobes.

Are Our Clothes A Plastic Catastrophe?

Plastic, and the sheer volume of it, is never far from the news at the moment.

From plastic items like straws and coffee cups that we use just once, to plastic particles in our seas and food chain, it seems that we’ve just woken up to just how much plastic has infiltrated our lifestyles – and even our clothes.

Plastic has only been around 80 or so years but in that time we have created 91 billion tonnes of it and only recycled 10%.

Why is there plastic in our clothes?

In the 1950s polyester was introduced into men’s suits by chemical company DuPont and since then plastic has become a core part of much of our clothing.

It’s amusing now to see photos of 1960s and 70s fashion with loud patterns on shiny, itchy fabrics, it can’t have been the most comfortable of wears but since when did comfort form the basis of fashion…

Polyester and nylon usage grew, with improvements made to how well it could be blended with natural fibres, until it overtook cotton in 2007 as the world’s dominant fibre.

The most commonly used plastic in clothes is polyethylene terephthalate (PET). It’s made from crude oil.

This is what our plastic bottles are generally made out of and which, when pulled into a long thread, can also be woven or knitted in to fabrics or blended with other threads such as cotton to make mixed (polycotton) fabrics.

(See here for fashion brands making clothes out of recycled plastic bottles).

It’s not that easy to avoid plastic in our clothes now when shopping. If you check your labels you’ll be surprised how much plastic you’ll find.

Plastic was fantastic: The benefits of plastic in our clothes

It’s hard now, to think why anyone would put plastic in clothing but we’ve all grown up with the benefits and perhaps not even known the plastic was there.

  • It is much easier to iron our shirts when they have a bit of polyester.
  • We also like the stretchiness of our jeans (our mums used to sit in the bath to shrink theirs to size)
  • We also love the lightness and comfort of the more modern plastic fabrics such as fleece and performance wear.
  • The price can be pretty compelling too – compare an acrylic to a wool jumper or a polyester scarf to a silk one.

There are other more attractive points in its favour too.

  • Natural fibres such as cotton or wool do have a finite production capacity.
  • There is only so much land available but plastic production knows no such limits.
  • Plastics can be produced cheaply without constraint only dependent on the price and availability of oil.

“It’s hard now, to think why anyone would put plastic in clothing but we’ve all grown up with the benefits”

So what’s the plastic catastrophe?

Sadly there are a number of areas for concern…

1. Plastic microfibres from our clothes

When we wash our clothes the plastic in them can shed tiny microfibres which move from our water system into the seas and our food chain.

There are ways to cut down or eliminate these tiny bits of plastic though, for example putting your laundry in a bag during the wash using something like a GuppyFriend.

Environmental charity Hubbub has just launched a campaign to make people more aware of what’s in their wash and how to stop microplastic particles ending up in the sea.

Do you know how much plastic is in your wash?
Image Hubbub

2. Recycling isn’t the answer

Plastic is not biodegradable – it won’t rot away by itself – so unless it is recycled (into more plastic) then it will be with us forever.

We have only recycled 10% of all the plastic we have ever created – the rest is still around either in use, in landfill or disposed of in some other location – like the sea.

Recycling isn’t always effective. It works well for pure plastics but it is quite a challenge to recycle mixed fabrics (such as polycotton) or mixed fabric garments such as items with different fabrics (eg. cotton sleeves and polyester body).

There is work underway by companies such as Worn Again to enable the splitting out of mixed fabrics but this is still expensive and not so successful for low quality fabrics.

And it’s not just the fabrics we need to consider either. Add ons such as buttons, thread and labels need to be disposed of too. Alternatives such as wood or shell are a more biodegradable alternative.

So it’s simple then. Ditch the plastic?

Unfortunately it’s not quite that simple. Oh no, I hear you say, I thought you’d be able to give me the easy answer. Wait for it…

Carbon and water footprint
If you look at conventional (ie non organic) cotton versus polyester production in terms of footprint then there’s not a massive difference – cotton comes off worse actually when it comes to how much water it takes to keep it fed (take a look at this excellent report by WRAP for more information).

Rain fed, cotton crops like those generally grown in Africa or Kala Cotton in India are a more effective solution in terms of water usage.

The growth of organic cotton also has huge benefits for the sustainability of cotton as a clothing fibre and more sustainable methods of turning the fibres into fabric can also cut down the carbon and water production.

3 Things We Can Do To Reduce Fast Fashion’s Influence

Image Where Does It Come From?

Khadi is a traditional Indian handwoven fabric which uses low water in its production and virtually no carbon at all. At Where Does It Come From? we use khadi for our Indian produced shirts, scarves and kids clothes and are working with organic African cotton for our new African print tunics.

Fabric composting and recycling
Cotton will biodegrade and plastic will not.

It obviously isn’t quite as simple as that – cotton does need certain elements to biodegrade efficiently – light, air, time – but the principle is there. Non-organic cotton will also biodegrade into its component parts and that includes the pesticides and chemicals used in its growth. These seep into the ground affecting soil and wildlife in that area.

Recycling of both cotton and polyester is becoming more common, with many brands using recycled polyester in their clothes (I have some really cool jeans from Howies with the stretch provided by recycled bottles).

Initially recycled fibres were mixed with new to ensure the quality was acceptable but this has improved, the first ever 100% recycled cotton dress was created in 2014.

There is some fascinating work going on to improve recycling such as that by Worn Again, Blend and ECONYL – who are behind the boom in using plastic bottle yarn in clothing – such as in Davy J’s swimsuits.

“The simple answer is that we all need to buy less clothes, choose them thoughtfully, keep them longer and dispose of them well”

So what we can do?

1. Reduce your clothes shopping
By far the most damaging aspect of our clothing production can only be solved by us actually reducing the amount of clothes that we buy.

We need to buy and own less clothes. It’s a hard truth but in the UK the average household owns £4,000 worth of clothes of which they only wear about 75%.

Every year we chuck about 350,000 tonnes of clothes (worth around £140,000 according to WRAP) into landfill (that doesn’t even include the stuff we recycle or ship out to markets in developing countries).

2. Keep your clothes longer
We need to keep our clothes longer and wear them more.

We need to extend their lives by passing on to friends, upcycling or selling them on (see our excellent guide of how to buy vintage).

If we can keep our clothes out of landfill for an extra three months per garment, it would save 5-10% of their carbon footprint (again – WRAP).

5 Things I Learned While Wearing The Same Outfit For A Month

3. Shop consciously
Think about what your clothes are made of, as well as how much use you will get from them.

If buying new, shop from brands using organic fibres and if you want some plastic choose brands that use recycled (see here for some that use recycled plastic bottles) materials.

As fabric producers and brands we must increase the organic production of fibre crops such as cotton and the rain fed varieties.

Cut back on your single use plastics and recycle the plastics that you do use, that will cut down on the amount of new plastic being generated.

For brands that use plastic (I don’t) there needs to be an increase in recycled plastic used in fabrics, and some understanding how that fabric is going to be recycled at the end of the garment’s life (read here how Davy J is making end of life design an upfront decision).

Discover more about Where Does It Come From and its use of natural fibres here.

The simple answer is that we all need to buy less clothes, choose them thoughtfully, keep them longer and dispose of them well.