Why Plastic Clothes Are An Environmental Catastrophe

Polyester, Acrylic, Nylon… Clothing Made From Plastic Fibers Is Polluting The Planet. Here’s How.

We all know we need to move away from fast fashion, but do you know how much plastic is in your clothes? 

When it comes to making conscious clothing choices, it’s not just the amount of clothing we get through that’s turning our closets into a landfill timebomb.

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

Read on to learn about the problem with plastic clothes and what you can do about it. 

Why Are Clothes Made Out Of Plastic?

Plastic Clothing by panyakuanunphotos

Plastic clothing material commonly appears as synthetic fabrics such as polyester and nylon. 

Polyester fabric was first created in the mid-1930s but development was put on hold after the invention of nylon soon afterwards.

In the 1950s, polyester was introduced into men’s suits by chemical company DuPont. It took off as a cheap and easy fabric in the 1960s and ever since, plastic has become a core part of our clothing.

Over the last 60 years, polyester and nylon usage had grown astronomically, especially with improvements made to how well it could be blended with natural fibers. In 2007, they overtook cotton as the world’s most dominant fibers.

The most commonly used type of plastic for clothes is polyethylene terephthalate (PET), AKA plastic #1. 

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

But like any plastic clothing, it begins life as crude oil and is typically heavily processed using plasticizing phthalates (which are known hormone disruptors).

Why Is Plastic Clothing Bad For The Planet?

Plastic Clothing by piotr_malczyk

Human health impacts of phthalates, BPA, and any of the other numerous chemical compounds found in plastic aside, clothes made of plastic are wreaking havoc on the environment.

When we wash our clothes, the plastic in them can shed tiny microfibers and microplastics which move from our water system into the seas and our food chain—all the way to us humans and our blood.

Plastic is not biodegradable—meaning it will never fully break down and disappear into natural elements—so unless it is recycled (into more plastic for clothes and other products) then it will be with us for hundreds if not thousands of years before it decomposes. 

Microplastics (defined as less than five millimeters in diameter) pollute the natural environment in their sheer number which is both unpleasant to look at and poses a threat to organisms. 

Marine organisms ingest plastics, resulting in asphyxiation, starvation and injury from toxic PFAS chemicals. 

Since plastics are still fairly new, scientists are still unsure of the long-term effects of microplastics on animal and human health. 

However, they’re now prevalent at every level of the food chain from microorganisms to our own bodies. 

Are There Any Benefits To Plastic In Clothing?

Plastic Clothing by pixelshot

Good and bad, plastic fabrics revolutionized the fashion industry. 

Plastic fashion became easier and cheaper to make, allowing companies to increase output whilst keeping costs down. 

It was great for business and our wallets, but bad for the rise of fast fashion and its damaging social and environmental effects. 

Here are some other reasons why plastics like polyester became popular include: 

  • Versatility: Polyester is incredibly versatile. You can make it mimic a lot of different types of material like fleece, silk or velvet for a fraction of the time, cost and resources. 
  • Performance: In some cases, it’s easier to wear and use. It adds stretchiness to jeans and makes shirts easier to iron. 
  • Production: Natural fibers such as cotton or wool do have a finite production capacity but plastic production knows no limits. Plastics can be produced cheaply without constraint as they’re only dependent on the price and availability of oil.

Alternatives To Buying Plastic Clothes

Plastic Clothing by Odua Images

Whether we like it or not, plastic fashion is likely here to stay.

While buying plastic-free clothes is much better for the planet (at least if it’s certified organic or sustainably sourced), that’s not always possible. 

Since plastic is very much part of the fashion ecosystem, we think it’s far better to keep already existing resources in circulation rather than creating or buying new. 

Instead of buying new polyester or nylon clothes, here’s what you can do: 

Buy Clothing Made Of Recycled Materials

Using recycling plastic is one way to curb the reliance on virgin materials. 

And it’s taken the sustainable fashion industry by storm—so much so that the demand for recycled synthetic fibers is set to reach $1.1 trillion by 2030.

It’s common to see clothes from plastic bottles and other ocean-bound plastic waste. 

While recycling plastic into clothes is an excellent way to ensure otherwise wasted resources are being used again, fast fashion brands still take liberties when calling recycled polyester lines “sustainable” or “conscious”.

In reality, these plastic bottle clothes are made the same way as their non-recycled counterparts: cheaply and in unethical factories. 

Many may not even contain very much recycled plastic at all.

In other words, it’s a green card that allows fast fashion to greenwash. It’s also not that useful if a pile of water bottles has been turned into clothes if the clothes still end up back in landfill. 

Even when buying recycled garments, see whether the brand has an end-of-life plan for their clothes. 

Shop For Thrifted & Secondhand Gems 

Instead of buying new, go secondhand. Thrift or vintage clothing stores give old clothes a new lease of life, while bypassing all the secondary manufacturing of other recycled clothes.

Trends and styles always have a habit of coming back. Some staples like jeans or trench coats never go out of fashion. 

Instead of buying new cheap knock-offs, get the real thing or find a unique gem in a thrift or vintage store. 

Go Plastic-Free In Your Closet

Natural fabrics are biodegradable and won’t pollute the environment—but not all of them are better than synthetics. 

If you look at conventional (i.e. non-organic) cotton versus polyester production in terms of footprint then there’s not a massive difference, but cotton is worse when it comes to how much water and land it takes to cultivate it.

Sure, its end-of-life outcome is better, but water and chemical intensive growing process of conventional cotton negates any disposal benefits—especially considering many cotton clothes are then blending with percentages of synthetic fibers just big enough to ensure they’re no longer biodegradable, either.

If you’re shopping for plastic-free clothing, look for certified organic or sustainably sourced fabrics which guzzle less water. These include: 

  • Organic cotton 
  • Bamboo lyocell (only that made in a closed-loop process)
  • Linen 
  • Hemp 
  • TENCEL™ Modal 
  • Lyocell 
  • Ethical wool 
  • Ethical silk 

Reduce Your Clothes Consumption

The most damaging aspect of our clothing production can only be solved by us reducing the number of clothes we buy.

We need to buy and own less clothes. It’s a hard truth but the average American household spends about $1,500–$1,700 a year on clothes.

In the US, an estimated 11.3 million tons of textile waste is sent to landfill every year. That’s about 2,150 pieces per second. 

So, halt your clothes shopping habits, avoid sales and resist impulse buys. 

Instead, have a look through your wardrobe for new outfit ideas and only buy new clothes when you need to. 

What Can You Do With Your Old Plastic Clothing?

Plastic Clothing by Allika

It’s inevitable that plastic clothing will be present in your wardrobe. 

So, what do you do with it when you no longer need it?  

Instead of sending plastic fashion to landfill, here’s how to sustainably pass on clothes made of plastic: 

Resell Or Donate Your Unwanted Clothing 

Have some old clothes you don’t wear anymore? 

Give your wardrobe a cleanout. 

Donate your clothes to your local thrift store or see if you can make a few bucks from them on apps like Vinted or Depop. 

Organizations like TRAID in the UK and Buffalo Exchange in the US will let you send in your old (but still in good condition) clothing to be resold. 

Another way to pass on preloved clothing is to do a clothes swap with your friends. Host a clothes swap party where you each bring items you’re willing to give away and get swapping!

Recycle Worn Out Clothes 

Recycle torn or damaged clothes that are beyond repair. Some clothing brands offer take-back schemes where you receive store credit for sending in your old items. 

Alternatively, find your nearest clothes recycling bank. 

Some clothes may be recycled at home but you may need to remove buttons or accessories. 

Get Creative With Upcycling 

Torn or tired clothing? Gorgeous fabric but awful fit? 

Unleash your creativity by upcycling—plastic clothes included!

Upcycling clothes doesn’t have to be complicated. It could be as simple as turning an old T-shirt into cleaning rags or jeans into denim shorts.

If you’re worried that your requirements are a little beyond your skill set, find a tailor near you and see if they can make the alterations for you.

Keep Your Plastic Apparel Longer

We need to keep our clothes longer and wear them more. The best way to do this is to keep them in good condition. 

Put wool and polyester blended sweaters in airtight ziplock bags to fend off moth holes. Fold and hang your clothes correctly and put delicate clothes away in garment bags. 

Follow the instructions on the label when washing your clothes, wash at a cooler setting and use a gentle detergent.  

We also recommend washing any type of plastic clothes (recycled included) in a GuppyFriend wash bag to prevent any microfibers from entering the waterways. 

If we can keep our clothes out of landfills for an extra three months per garment, it would save 5–10% of their carbon footprint. 

Closing Thoughts On Plastic Clothes

Plastic fashion is ingrained in our society—especially in the ever-growing fashion industry.

Of the 80-100 billion items of clothing produced each year, plastic clothing accounts for around 60% of it.

On top of that, 92 million tons of clothing waste is sent to landfill every year.

Despite its damaging effects, our reliance on plastic clothing is growing. It’s projected that nearly 75% of clothing will be made by synthetics like plastic by 2030. 

If clothing made of plastic continues to grow at this rate, it could have dire consequences for the environment, our health and the fashion industry’s overall carbon footprint. 

Since plastic clothes are here to stay for the foreseeable future, we all need to buy fewer clothes, choose them thoughtfully, keep them longer, and dispose of them as infrequently and as best we can.

So give this article a share to anyone with PET lurking in their drawers—which is to say everyone—to encourage them to think twice before buying yet another pair of polyester leggings.