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How Washing Our Clothes Is Polluting The Ocean

Posted by Shay Lawrence on

Plastic is everywhere. It’s hovering in your pantry, filling up our grocery stores, and bobbing up and down in the ocean.

But what you may not know: plastic is in your clothes and it could just be the biggest contributor to microplastic in our oceans.

Ocean

60% of fabrics produced today, contain plastic. That cute activewear set you wear to the gym, and your favourite skirt... most likely contain plastic. Synthetic clothing (plastic based and not biodegradable) has become so popular and cheap, that we’ve forgotten what it’s really made of, and the cost it has on our environment. 

The truth is, your synthetic clothes are contributing to ocean plastic pollution, in a sneaky but impactful way. It’s time to shed some light on an issue we’ve looked past for far too long.

HOW ARE CLOTHES MADE FROM PLASTIC?

There are two main types of fabrics: synthetic, made from plastic, and natural, made from biodegradable materials. 100% natural fibres do not contain plastic, and at the end of their life span, they can break down in compost conditions.

    Natural Fabrics:

    • Linen
    • Wool
    • Silk
    • Cotton
    • Jute
    • Hemp
    • Cashmere
    • Kenaf
    • Ramie
    • Mohair
    • Sisal

    Synthetic Fabrics:

    • Elastane
    • Polyester
    • Acrylic
    • Nylon
    • Spandex
    • Modacrylic
    • Fleece
    • Microfleece

    Semi-Synthetic Fabrics:

    • Bamboo
    • Tencel
    • Rayon
    • Viscose
    • Modal 
    • Lyocell
    • Tencel

    The Semi-Synthetic Fabrics are plant based but artificially created and often marketed as a better alternative. But it's a tough one. For example, bamboo is a very strong, tough plant. Turning it into a soft and wearable fabric involves a heavy chemical process, meaning it may not end up as the natural fibre we think it is. If you are buying semi-synthetic, suss if the manufacturing process is environmentally sound and closed-loop (retains the chemicals) before you go ahead - and maybe contemplate the below information first. 

    So How Does Washing Our Clothes Pollute The Ocean With Plastic?!

    Clothes rack

    WASHING = PLASTIC IN THE OCEAN

    Every time you wash your synthetic and semi-synthetic* clothes, tiny plastic fibres shed off the fabric. These are called Microplastics. They are less than 5 millimetres in length and not visible to the human eye.

    Microplastics pass through our washing machines. Some of these tiny fibres skip the filters at the waste water plants (due to size) and head on out into the ocean. This topic first came to light when Ecologist Mark Browne found small, synthetic fibres on the shoreline. His 2011 study showed that around 85% of the microplastics originated from polyester, nylon and other man-made fabric. Another study out of the University of Plymouth showed that in one 6kg wash, over 700,000 microfibres can be released.

    WHY ARE MICROPLASTICS AN ISSUE?

    Once in the Ocean, microplastics make their way through the food chain from the smallest of filter feeders right through to the apex predators. Microplastics harm marine life with accumulation in tissues causing direct injury and impacting their ability to feed. There is also the chemical/toxicity side to look at, with high levels of plasticisers causing reproductive and growth issues**. Expand this out into the whole ecosystem, there's far reaching impact through the entire food web.  

    What we eat isn't exempt from this - we are literally eating plastic too. The impacts on human health are yet to be determined. Research is still in the early stages but common sense points to the 'not so good'. A plateful of plastic doesn't sounds too tasty and if it's already having massive impacts on Marine Life, logic goes it isn't going to be all that good for us either. 

    Washing machine

    SEPTIC TANK SYSTEMS AND MICROPLASTICS?

    Even those with septic water tanks can experience issues in their tank systems caused by microplastics. The microplastics disrupt the breakdown of bacteria and can exist in the tanks for hundreds of years. Although the microplastics aren’t entering the bellies of marine life when flushed into septic tanks, they still find their way into the earth and are contaminating the soil ecosystem. There is also the question of what happens to the microplastics when tanks are emptied. 

     

    SO WHAT CAN WE DO?

    Reducing your single use plastics, switching to reusables, and shopping for a plastic free pantry are great ways to reduce your impact on the planet and cut out your contribution to plastic pollution, but it doesn’t stop there. Microplastics are a major concern, and if we don’t start doing something about it, the prediction that by 2050 there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish, may just come true.

    Up until now it has been easy to dismiss microplastics as out of sight, out of mind. But with the rapid growth of human population, and over consumption of synthetic clothes, microplastics can no longer be ignored. They’re turning into a leading Ocean pollution issue.

    We all wear clothes, so hearing this can feel like a biggy. Don’t fret! Not all fabrics are made from plastic and we won't all be walking around naked tomorrow  - there are some solutions!

    Clothing hanging

    What you can do TODAY to help:

    1. Read your clothing labels: WHY? To avoid purchasing synthetic fibres and know you’re purchasing natural fibres instead.
    2. Wash your clothes in a front loader: WHY? Studies have found that top loading washing machines release 7 times more microplastics than front loaders.
    3. Spot wash: WHY? Reduce the amount of times the garment is washed, and stop microplastics coming off your garment in the washing machine. This also helps the garment last longer.
    4. Choose a cold wash cycle, or a temperature 30 degrees celsius and below: WHY? Warmer temperatures can cause more fibres to break off a garment.
    5. Use liquid washing detergent, not powder: WHY? Washing powder can act as a scrubber on the clothes, and remove more fibres over time.
    6. Wash your clothes with a Cora BallWHY? The Cora Ball collects some of the microplastics in the wash, so you can dispose of them responsibly in landfill. Check out our Cora Balls here. 

     

    *Microplastics is an emerging area of study. The verdict isn't completely out on Semi-Sythetic fabric yet and general consensus it seems is to treat as you would Synthetic in terms of washing. Rayon fibres have been found in deep ocean creatures (see more info here). We will update as more information comes available. 

    **Here's a good article from the Journal of Medical Toxicology that goes further into the Science and impacts of Marine Life. 

     

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    2 comments

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      YEET

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