Microplastics: what’s the issue?
It’s pretty devastating to realise the clothes we wear could be damaging ocean wildlife – and not only that, finding its way into the very food that sustains us.
So being an optimistic greenie I needed to find out which items are doing the harm, what we need to change, and what are the alternatives.
Due to publicity such as the BBC series Blue Planet II we’re becoming more aware of plastic in the oceans, and how devastating this can be to marine life. But it’s not jut plastic bottles left on the beach – scientists now know that tiny particles of fabric from our clothes are ending up in the oceans and finding their way into the food chain after being ingested by fish and plankton.
Is this the end for my wardrobe?
I bought my clothes through the usual channels, it didn’t cross my mind to do things any other way. I knew synthetic fibres like polyester contain plastic, making items like my business shirts easier to iron and launder, cheaper (yes I am that cheap) and less crinkly, and so easier to survive the trauma of being carried around by me in a hurriedly packed suitcase. But I didn’t know about their role in the environmental crisis.
Is this the end of my business shirts? Are all synthetic fibres that bad? A 2016 study at Plymouth University showed that laundering a 6kg mixed load could release 137,951 fibres from polyester-cotton blend fabric, 496,030 from polyester and 728,789 from acrylic.
So here’s the order I’m going to throw out these clothes in:
- acrylic (worst)
- polyester (second worst)
- polyester-cotton (third worst, and the fabric of my few remaining non-cotton shirts)
Out go my business shirts?
In the tests the acrylic produced six times as many fibres as the polyester-cotton blend. So there’s some hope for my business shirts after all – for now.
Out go my fleeces?
I didn’t even know I had fleeces. Yes I do – in my trackie pants, thermals and hoodies (well my old hoodie actually. My new one is 100% cotton from Gap, and perfectly warm). 100% polyester tends to be found in soft warm clothing, often the bargain-basement variety. Yes, I found a 100% polyester fleece, out it goes.
What about e-cloths?
I knew e-cloths contain tiny plastic fibres, and because of this no (other) chemicals are needed to keep things clean. I’ve been using them with great success on my car, and you can even wash your car without water or chemicals. Sounds amazing, and it is.
E-cloths may contain polyesters, polyamides such as nylon and/or polypropylene. It gets complicated, a) because I don’t know what most of these materials are and b) because how do I weigh up the benefits of using microfibre cloths (no detergents, washable) with the drawbacks (fibres escape)?
So what are the green alternatives?
Fibres can be:
- natural (like wool and cotton)
- synthetic (this is where we find the plastics)
- semi-synthetic (say containing wood fibres but with some human intervention)
It’s hard to settle on one natural fibre, they are so many and they all make me feel good. So here are seven I love:
1. Bamboo – the planet’s fastest-growing tree. https://bambooclothing.co.uk have a good selection including yoga pants
2. Hemp – tough, practical, grows well. Loads of people sell clothes made from hemp too. Like the Hemp Trading Company
3. Linen – perennially cool to own. I always like to have a couple of linen shirts
4. Merino is a moisture-retaining wool, favoured by sportswear manufacturers for its warmth and practicality. Sue bought me a merino tee-shirt for the gym and I haven’t looked back. It’s got that natural feel, it’s not going to stretch or fade like a cotton T and it’s very comfortable to wear [photo]
5. Nettle – what a cool idea, wearing nettle! It’s tough and often made the traditional way by local communities. Wildleaves do some interesting stuff, love the wild nettle sandals.
6. Possum fur – like my favourite winter beanie and scarf
Surprising fact – possum is considered a pest in Australia and New Zealand as it is destructive to wildlife. http://www.kiwikate.co.uk sell possum, merino and sheepskin clothes.
7. Your pets. Just the fur, you still get to keep your pet
… and some others …
8. Banana – just because it sounds so exotic
9. Camel – you can make clothes out of a number of animal furs
10. Sugar cane – they make jeans from them
What about recycled polyester?
You can even make garments from recycled plastic bottles and polyester – Patagonia does. That’s great but it’s still a problem until we find a way to deal with the polyester. Is it better to rescue polyester from landfill, only to have it appear in fishes’ stomachs and the food we eat later? Not sure I can answer that.
Those you don’t get rid of, wash by hand. I’ll be losing the synthetics, at least as far as I possibly can. There’s not much information out there yet but it appears much of the damage is done by machine washing at temperatures of 30 degrees plus. It’s the agitation that is releasing the fibres. So it makes sense to hand-wash these items.
Wear layers. Ok, it’s thicker, it’s a bit heavier, but it’s the traditional way and it’s amazingly effective.
Make your own organic cotton/hemp fleece https://www.etsy.com/ie/listing/549060410/hemp-and-organic-cotton-fleece-fabric?ga_order=most_relevant&ga_search_type=all&ga_view_type=gallery&ga_search_query=organic%20cotton%20fleece%20fabric&ref=sr_gallery_28
Know any more interesting natural fibres? I’d love to hear from you. Add your comment below.
Useful hints on micro fibre pollution: http://www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org/pft/2017/3/2/15-ways-to-stop-microfiber-pollution-now
http://www.peopletree.co.uk/edits/yoga-wear – great 100% cotton yoga wear at non-ouch prices
https://www.kusagaathletic.com/collections/mens-apparel manufacture sportswear from a certified vegan fabric called Ecodry.
Bergzeit supply non-synthetic outdoor wear: https://www.bergzeit.co.uk/journal/functional-underwear-base-layers-for-sport-and-leisure/