By Daniel Elbaz, PPC Intern
While your fit may “be fire,” as GenZers like to say, beware of open flames: At least 69 percent of clothing is currently made of highly flammable and toxic plastic. We urgently need to phase plastic out of fashion: Plastic pollution has surged with the rise of plastic fast fashion—bringing with it devastating impacts on our health and the environment when produced, used, and discarded.
Many of us try to reduce our usage of plastic by saying no to plastic straws, water bottles, or shopping bags, and using reusables instead. These are great steps to take to reduce your exposure to plastic as we work toward wider systems change to reduce production of hazardous plastic and its toxic chemical additives. Yet, we must also pay attention to the “hidden” or “invisible” plastics in our lives, such as those commonly found in our clothing.
Fast Fashion Is Growing—and So Are Its Harmful Impacts
The fashion industry is growing and so are its harmful impacts. Of the approximately 100 billion items of clothing produced each year, nearly 70 billion are made of plastic—and that percentage is on track to rise into the future. At least three out of five articles of clothing are discarded within a year of being produced and sold.
Take a look at the tags on your clothing. Is any of it synthetic? Synthetic clothing is made of some percentage of manmade materials, most often, plastics—including polyester, nylon, acrylic, spandex (also called Lycra or elastane), fleece, or polyolefin. Clothing made of these fabrics tends to wear out quickly, and is most likely to be rapidly used and discarded. When thrown away, fast fashion pollutes air, soils, waters, the oceans, and our bodies. Synthetic clothing is commonly sent to landfills, where it sheds tiny plastic particles called microplastics and nanoplastics and toxic additives, like PFAS. Synthetic clothing is also incinerated, or dumped and open-burned, releasing climate-warming greenhouse gases and producing toxic emissions and ash. And a significant amount of fast fashion clothing, often poor-quality donated clothing, is sent to countries in the Global South—especially to parts of Africa including Kenya and Ghana, causing massive amounts of pollution and injustice.
Fast fashion’s plastic pollution travels far and wide: Discarded plastic clothing alone is estimated to have released at least 1.4 quintillion (or a million trillions) plastic microfibers into the ocean. Each time an article of synthetic clothing is washed, it sheds hundreds of thousands to more than a million tiny plastic fibers into wastewater—which is eventually discharged into waterways. Most washing machines cannot catch tiny microfibers, nor can sewage systems (where they exist). To quantify the scale of microfibers in the ocean caused by laundry alone, 35 percent of global releases of microplastics to oceans are thought to be caused by washing clothes.
Plastic Microfiber Pollution Is Everywhere
At every stage of production, use, and disposal, plastic clothing—like all plastic—negatively impacts human health and the environment. To create the plastic for clothing, large amounts of fossil fuels are extracted and processed, releasing greenhouse gases, which contributes to the climate crisis and drives injustice and pollution. The process of producing and transporting the plastic used in clothing requires significant amounts of energy, causing further environmental degradation. Fashion is the world’s second-biggest industrial consumer of water (behind agriculture) and is responsible for polluting 2–8 percent of climate-warming carbon emissions globally.
So, why should we care? Plastic microfibers are now everywhere—in fish, bottled water, tap water, salt, beer, you name it! Obviously, humans commonly eat or drink all of these things, so the microplastics from the synthetic fibers end up in our body. Researchers estimate that each human likely ingests 14,000 to 68,000 plastic microfibers every year and inhales about a credit card’s worth of plastic per week. One study revealed that in a household, 33 percent of microplastics in floating dust come from synthetic fabrics. Plastic particles are all around us, and we now know there are plastic particles in human hearts, bloodstreams, veins, lungs, placentas, feces, testes/semen, and breast milk.
Plastic particles act as delivery devices for toxic chemicals that are added to plastics during production. All plastics, including microplastics, contain a mix of any combination of more than 13,000 additive chemicals—more than 3,200 of which are already known to be hazardous. These include hormone-disrupting classes of chemicals BPA, phthalates, and PFAS. Not only do these plastics harm humans, they also harm wildlife, causing starvation, hormone disruption, broken down digestive systems, and stunted growth.
Before our present Plastic Age, clothing was primarily made out of natural materials, such as cotton, leather, linen, silk, and wool. These materials are long-lasting. It was more common for people to make, or hold onto and repair their clothing. However, now the fashion industry has been taken over by rapidly purchased and discarded clothing and accessories made from synthetic fabrics, including polyester, nylon, and acrylic.
This shift to synthetic fabrics has allowed for the mass production of low-cost fashion, letting people easily access outfits to keep up with the latest trends. But these characteristics come at a great cost to our planet and our bodies. What’s more, making and disposing of plastic apparel disproportionately harms rural, low-income, BIPOC, and Global South communities, driving severe environmental and social injustices. And, sadly, people who make fast fashion clothing are often exploited and subject to working in poor, toxic conditions.
How to Reduce Plastic Clothing in Your Life
1. Think—Then Buy, Swap, or Share
The main strategy for reducing plastic clothing in your wardrobe is to think before you buy, swap, or share your clothes. Read the tags for each article of clothing you buy, and try to find items that are made 100 percent out of natural, regenerative materials, such as cotton, wool, hemp, or linen. These materials have historically come with their own negative ecological and social impacts; however, today we can take steps such as implementing fair labor and organic standards to make these materials more sustainable. Ideally, these materials should be organic, and fair trade to ensure reduced impacts on people and the planet.
2. Opt for Second-hand First, Buy New Responsibly Second
Attempt to buy or procure second-hand clothing whenever possible. Not only is buying clothes at thrift stores a fun and more affordable way of shopping, but it also is a more sustainable source of clothing. Giving clothing a second (or third, or fourth) life is much better for people and the environment than buying new. If you do choose to purchase new clothes, the best approach is to buy clothing from reputable companies focused on environmental and social responsibility. Some of these include Outerknown, Pact, and Tentree, but it’s best for each person to explore and find ethical and sustainable brands that match their sense of style and budget. Instead of throwing your clothes away in the trash when you outgrow or no longer want them, if they are in good shape, donate them to thrift stores or any charities that will responsibly distribute or sell them again.
3. Prevent Plastic Microfiber Pollution
As you work to reduce the amount of plastic clothing in your wardrobe, make use of washing machine bags, such as the one made by Guppyfriend, to reduce the amount of microfiber shedding of your clothes by 86 percent, and the bag captures almost all the microfibers that do shed. Another item you can buy for your washing machine is The Cora Ball, a product that catches microfibers in the washing machine. Some washing machines are also made with built-in filters that catch these fibers, or you can add a filter like those made by PlanetCare. The only caveat is that unfortunately there is no good way to then dispose of these fibers—this is a major reason why it’s so important to phase plastic out of fashion. Find more information on reducing the impact of your clothing, watch Plastic Pollution Coalition’s recent webinar on the topic.
Having fire fits and choosing sustainable clothing are both very important, so you don’t need to choose one or the other. Find ways to do both! You can be a part of solutions to plastic pollution.