Synthetic Clothes Shed Microplastics

When synthetic textiles are washed they shed microplastics into the ocean. Photo: M.Danny25, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

Keep Plastic Out of the Ocean: Look Beyond Straws

People are fighting to keep plastic straws and bottles out of the ocean and to keep the country’s carbon footprint low.

Want to do your part? Check your closet. Shop less, buy natural fibers. A 2017 International Union for Conservation of Nature report estimated about 35 percent of the microplastics that enter the ocean come via synthetic textiles.

Sixty percent of clothing contains polyester. According to a 2016 Greenpeace report, polyester is made from crude oil and emits three times more CO2 than cotton. Those clothes are also not easily degradable and synthetic microfibers are released when they are washed; these fibers make their way into rivers and seas.

According to a January 2019 Vox story (“More Than Ever, Our Clothes Are Made of Plastic. Just Washing Them Can Pollute the Oceans”), polyester, nylon, acrylic and other synthetic fibers are all forms of plastic.

The article explains that fibers leach into the environment when clothing is laundered. “Estimates vary, but it’s possible that a single load of laundry could release hundreds of thousands of fibers from our clothes into the water supply,” the story said, noting that the tiny fibers, less than 5 millimeters in length, can eventually reach the ocean.

“There, they’re adding to the microplastic pollution that’s accumulating in the food chain and being ingested by all sorts of marine wildlife and even us. Most of the plastic that’s in the ocean is not in the form of whole products like cups or straws, but instead broken-down shreds of plastic.”

The fibers are so tiny they pass easily through sewage treatment plants. “Think about how many people are washing their clothes on a daily basis, and how many clothes we all have,” says Imogen Napper, a marine scientist at the University of Plymouth, who co-authored a 2016 study on the plastic fibers that shed from our clothing. “Even when we’re walking around, not washing our clothes, tiny fibers are falling off. It’s everywhere.”

Napper and a colleague designed a test to see how many of these fibers could be shed in the wash. They fitted a Whirlpool front-loading washing machine with a special filter to collect tiny fibers. They tested swatches of three types of fabric: a polyester-cotton blend T-shirt, a polyester hoodie, and an acrylic sweater.

After a few washes (all garments shed more when they are brand new), the acrylic fabric shed the most, followed by the polyester, and then the poly-cotton blend.

An easy solution might be to buy natural fibers or fewer clothes overall, but Mark Browne, an environmental scientist at University College Dublin, suggests that “Washing machines need to be designed to reduce emissions of fibers to the environment; at the moment they are not.”

In the meantime, if you want to keep plastic out of the ocean, “wash only when necessary.”

But washing synthetic fibers is not the only issue. Even though women say they recycle their clothes by giving them away, still about 85 percent of all textiles end up in landfill.

Greenpeace wrote in its 2017 report: “Since the rise of fast fashion in 2000, we now buy twice as much clothes and wear them only half the time. The volume of clothes produced is depleting resources such as water and land, challenging the Earth’s capacity to absorb greenhouse gases, and producing unbearable quantities of toxic chemical and clothes waste.

“We are pushing for new business models to make companies produce better quality clothes, improve re-use and recycling systems, and encourage new shopping practices that are sustainable.”

Eighty-five percent of all textiles in the U.S. end up in landfill, such as this one in Arizona.
Photo: Alan Levine/flickr

(Editor’s note: A March 8, 2019 Wall Street Journal Story “Synthetic Clothes Shed into the Ocean” addressed microfibers being released during washings, noting that “More than 22 million metric tons of microfibers are projected to enter the ocean between 2015 and 2050.”)


September 2018 Textile Recycling Facts and Figures

  • About 16 million tons of used textile waste is generated each year in the U.S. and the amount has doubled in the past 20 years. In 2014, of the 16 million tons of textile waste, 2.62 million tons was recycled, 3.14 million tons were combusted and 10.46 million tons were sent to the landfill. An average American throws away 80 pounds of used clothing per person.
  • The average person buys 60 percent more items of clothing and keeps them for about half as long as 15 years ago.
  • Annual environmental impact of producing household’s clothing is equivalent to the water needed to fill 1,000 bathtubs and the carbon emissions from driving an average modern car for 6,000 miles.
  • If the average of life of clothing was extended by just three months, it would reduce by five to ten percent their carbon and water footprints. The recycling of two million tons of clothing by year equates to taking one million cars from U.S. streets.



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One Response to Synthetic Clothes Shed Microplastics

  1. Sally Iorillo says:

    I have noticed of late that my favorite store ( which will remain nameless …Chico’s ) for my everyday clothes has begun to use less and less natural fabrics …… less cotton ! And much nylon. rayon, synthetics etc.. They have asked me to comment on style but they don’t accept comments on fabric choices. Odd ? I would love to shop the Village but I would also love to be a size 10 or below !

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