SUNA ERDEM on how our clothing is contributing to the environmental scourge of microplastics, and what can be done about it.
The Arctic is a forbidding place. The 24-hour winter darkness; sub zero temperatures; treacherous floating ice sheets – it is barely accessible to all but the most dedicated scientist or explorer.
Our clothes, however, have made it. According to a study led by the Ocean Wise conservation association in Canada, microplastics from clothing textiles have set up a veritable colony in the freezing indigo waters.
Approximately 92% of microplastic pollution found in samples from across the Arctic Ocean are synthetic fibres, nearly three quarter of them are polyester and resemble fibres used in clothing and textiles – those particularly common in athleisure, cosy fleeces and cheap, throwaway synthetic fast fashion. That’s basically your entire lockdown wardrobe right there.
“Microfibres don’t belong there…They are human made, they’re additives and chemicals, and we know from studies that they can be harmful. We are even talking about pathogenic,” the study’s co-author Dr Anna Pasocha, research manger of the Ocean Wise Plastics Lab, told me.
Ocean Wise and the Canadian government’s Institute of Ocean Sciences analysed samples from 71 locations including the North Pole, and found that there were at least 40 microplastic particles per cubic metre. Their findings show most of the microfibres must have come from the south, from the Atlantic Ocean. The research – billed “the most comprehensive study of Arctic microplastics ever undertaken” – highlights the role played by textiles and laundry polluting the environmentally-crucial Arctic Circle. Microplastics have previously been found in the intestines of the Beluga whale, now they have reached fragile Inuit communities.
When we all watched Blue Planet II back in 2017, a light was shone on the devastating effects of plastic on natural life – albatrosses coughing up plastic tugged at heartstrings. But the problem goes beyond what we can see – the scourge of tiny plastic particles (any plastic fragment less than about 5 mm) pervading our seas, air, soil and, increasingly, our food sources is growing towards epic and potentially dangerous proportions.
Last summer, two separate scientific studies — one from Italy and the other a collaboration between Dutch and Chinese scientists– discovered that microplastics had made it into fruit and vegetables such as apples, carrots, and lettuce, travelling up through the roots into their edible parts, upending decades-long assumptions that they were too large to pass through the physical barriers of intact plant tissues. This implicates not only human vegetable food but also meat and dairy through the animals that eat vegetables.
The particles have been found in drinking water, packaged salt, seafood and even beer. Scientists are currently looking for microplastics in human organs and believe they will find them.
Microplastics come from many sources, including big items progressively broken down by the elements and plastic bags. But clothes are big culprits, not only shedding microfibres in the wash that float with wastewater into the rivers and seas, but also into the atmosphere as we wear them.
These synthetic fibres – polyester, nylon, acrylic, spandex and others, all effectively petroleum products, or petrochemicals – are a fast growing ingredient of modern clothing. Cheap and versatile, they make for flexible fabrics providing breathability and warmth.
According to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, washing clothes releases half a million tonnes of plastic microfibres into the ocean every year, equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles.
Most brands use these fabrics, but they are a particular feature of online fast fashion, which cannily focused in the pandemic on joggers and hoodies instead of the usual skimpy bling, and activewear – both sectors were rare retail winners last year as lockdown turned us towards home workouts, outdoor running, WFH in hoodies and joggers or mainlining television in loungewear.
As evidence mounts of fashion’s environmental harm, the industry’s buzzwords are now unsurprisingly ‘sustainability’ and ‘ethics’. ‘Green’ collections are regularly announced. Premiere Vision, the leading fashion fabric show in Paris, has been multiplying the size of its sustainable textile section for the past few years. Awareness of microplastics is growing.
“We are increasingly informed about the particulars of oceans and the importance of their health,” said Giusy Bettoni, a leading sustainability consultant in Milan. “We know we need to take care about washing clothes. Washing machine manufacturers are working on this too.”
However, moving from talk to action is slow. “Everybody is using the word sustainability. We know it’s not always true,” Bettoni said. “It’s now the right time to align what we do with what we say.” One big problem, as she sees it, is that truly sustainable choices are not always obvious to consumers.
Better messaging and better regulation is needed. “I can easily say I’m the best – but who’s to say that’s true? We need more certification. More detail.”
One way to improve fashion’s environmental footprint, apart from simply buying less, is recycling. PET bottles have been turned into fabric for designer garments. Econyl, a recycled nylon, is made from discarded fishing nets recovered by divers.
Currently 85% of Sweaty Betty swimming costumes, as well as board shorts and other surferwear for sustainable Cornish brand Finisterre, and the entire product line of the ballet brand Imperfect Pointes, are made of Econyl. Big names such as Adidas and Speedo use the nylon, which also appears in less obvious products, including Burberry coats.
Dutch company Waste2Wear recycles plastics from surprising products including fridges and air conditioners to create a variety of fabrics, from silky jacquard to heavy crepe suiting, as well as carpeting and furniture textiles. Last year it won a Sustainable Business Award from the European Union Chamber of Commerce.
Yet in terms of microplastics, problems remain: plastics degrade and can’t be recycled repeatedly, and, recycled nylon can still shed microfibres.
Other innovations involve biosynthetics — fabrics made of sugars, plants and biomass. Silky fabric from orange pith surplus to the citrus industry in Italy has been used by Salvatore Ferragamo and H&M. ‘Leather’ has been made from mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms, or by growing bacteria. But so far these products are niche at best.
Why not just use natural fibres, such as cotton? Yet non-organic cotton is an intensely chemicals and water-heavy crop, while organic cotton is a small share of the market. Cotton farmers and their families have got sick from pesticides, while the cotton industry is blamed for the famously dwindling water of the once mighty Aral Sea in the Caucasus.
Viscose is made of wood, but production involves energy and chemicals. Wool has a long life and is biodegradable, but what about dyes? Natural fabrics can also shed fibres – scientists are assessing the impact.
“Its not as simple as synthetics versus natural – every polymer comes with a footprint,” said Ocean Wise’s Pasocka.
Ocean Wise collaborates with brands such as Patagonia to design the ultimate green fabrics. Everything, from the complexity of the cloth, the type of yarn, fibre qualities, the different types of twists in a thread, the tightness of the knit, the way it is all put together, can affect shedding. Some shed constantly, some when first washed, some hardly at all.
The science of microplastics is young – there is much still to learn — but frustration is mounting with the many fashion companies yet to act.
“Out of a pool of 136 fashion and textile companies, fewer than half provided data… on their water impacts when specifically requested to do so by their customers and investors, and less than a quarter of these are currently setting goals to reduce water pollution,” says CDP’s Cate Lamb, who will be a ‘water champion’ at this year’s COP26 Glasgow climate summit.
“H&M is the only company that mentioned microplastics or microfibres, despite textile production being widely responsible for their release into the environment….The low level of transparency and ambition is concerning.”
If the UK government is looking for an eye-catching yet urgent issue on which to take the initiative ahead of this November’s climate summit, the dangers posed by fashion to the environment could certainly provide one.