Can your outfit help clean the beach?
I grew up in Croatia, a country of 1,000 islands. I was lucky that beautiful long beaches were a part of my summer vacations, and the deep blue sea was a feeling I associate with some of my fondest memories. Unfortunately, I witnessed what mass tourism and rapid economic growth brought to those beaches year after year. They become littered with trash.
With time, I started picking up that litter. So did many of us. What we didn't realise was that, at the same time, we were wearing a source of plastic pollution. Most of our clothes today are made with plastic-like materials that eventually find their way into seas and oceans.
But, just as I have learned over the years, changes in how and what I wear can help reduce fashion's impact on the environment. It does not have to be complicated. It can be as simple as understanding what materials to choose and how to care for them.
Here are 8 things you can do to help reduce microplastic pollution in our oceans through your wardrobe.
1. Understand the core problem.
Let's start from the beginning: how is fashion connected to plastic pollution?
The fashion industry today is dependent on plastic. The world's most popular material, polyester, holds around 52% of the share in the global fibre market. Similar synthetic materials, like nylon, acrylic, rayon, and spandex (lycra), are common in our clothes. All of these are derived from coal, air, water, and petroleum. In other words, they come from fossil fuels and act and feel like plastic.
The very production of these materials is CO2 heavy. It also comes with an enormous water footprint and almost inevitable use of toxic chemicals. Thus, clothes made from conventional synthetic materials are polluting before they even reach our wardrobes. Once there, their impact doesn't stop.
Each time we wear and wash synthetic clothes, they release plastic microfibers or microplastic.
Microplastics are tiny bits of plastic that are less than 5 mm in length that get detached from bigger pieces of plastic. They are so small that they usually pass through our water filters and end up in natural ecosystems.
2. Understand how it is all connected.
One report estimates that the fashion industry adds about 176,500 metric tons of synthetic microfibers to our oceans every year. Others estimate this accounts for nearly 35% of global microplastic pollution.
But how did we get here?
The rise of fast fashion, a business model that prioritises cheap materials and labour to maximise profits, propelled the dominance of polyester and synthetics. Relatively inexpensive to manufacture, synthetics are an easy choice for big brands constantly looking to cut production costs. Perhaps surprisingly, avoiding such fashion can help the oceans too.
3. Go for quality over quantity
For a fast fashion brand to be successful, its business relies on massive and cheap production. That alone poses a series of ethical and environmental problems. But when it comes to plastic pollution specifically, we must address the ever-increasing speed of microtrends and new collections. Always pushing new styles helps to overlook the low quality of such clothes.
When things are produced at such speed, they are not meant to last. Most of us have experienced this first-hand. A t-shirt starts to fade after a couple of washes. The dress starts to stretch awkwardly after extended wear. We are more likely to throw away clothes after only a few wears. Due to the size of global textile production, more and more unwanted clothes are being washed on the shores.
Moreover, the lower the quality of clothes is, the more they will shred plastic. Poor quality means the fabric tears faster, allowing more fibres to get loose.
Therefore, next time you need a new garment, remember that it is worth saving for better quality. It lasts longer, will be less likely to end up straight in the oceans, and will release fewer fibres. I advise always opting for small, slow fashion brands that pay attention to every detail of their products.
4. Choose natural materials
Luckily, synthetic fibres are not the only option. Whenever possible, go for natural and preferably organic fabrics. While these, too, will eventually shred fibres, they will not contain plastic.
Now, keep in mind that there is no perfect fabric. Even natural fibres can have a negative environmental impact, depending on how and where they are produced. But choosing them is a step towards minimising plastic pollution.
The most popular natural fabrics include:
Organic cotton: a more gentle version of cotton. It gives soft, breathable material that holds dyes well. Most cotton clothes are comfortable and less wrinkle-prone than other materials.
Linen: another plant-sourced material that needs less water and chemicals to grow compared to cotton. Makes durable, resistant, and moisture-absorbing material.
Hemp: in many ways similar to linen. It also needs less water and chemicals when compared to cotton. It grows fast and is resistant to insects. Hemp easily blends with other materials.
Bamboo: the fastest-growing crop used in the textile industry. Needs very little land, chemicals and water. It results in super soft, hypoallergenic clothes.
Tencel and similar fibres made of wood pulp: innovative fabrics that are soft, gentle and breathable. These need very little energy and water compared to cotton and synthetics.
5. If needed, go for recycled polyester
It is not always possible to avoid synthetic materials altogether. Take modern outerwear, activewear and swimwear. We expect a stretchy, sometimes water-resistant material that is easy to clean and can withstand extreme conditions or temperatures. We are currently seeing a lot of promising innovations in these fields, but for the moment, it is almost impossible to replace synthetics completely.
Aware of this, many brands are turning to recycled polyester and nylon.
Using things like discarded bottles, the manufacturers are significantly reducing our dependence on raw materials and lowering carbon and water footprints. Recycled polyester or rePET is a fibre made from post-consumer plastic waste, most commonly plastic bottles. The fabric turns out to be a great replacement for virgin polyester. However, it remains plastic and releases microfibres. For this reason, it is important to remember that it is not a solution to fashion's plastic problem.
Still, when no alternative exists, going for recycled polyester is a step forward. That is especially true when you buy from a slow fashion brand that makes high-quality clothes. For example, GNGR Bees is a UK-based brand that turns discarded fishing nets into activewear. They also actively support grass-root actions, like beach cleanups.
6. Wash and dry your clothes better.
Choosing to buy better is essential. But the truth is, we all likely already have wardrobes full of plastic!
Rather than deciding to get rid of them to buy more sustainable alternatives, we can find ways to take better care of those clothes. All clothes deserve to be worn and cared for, regardless of how and where they were made.
The good news is that researchers found that better care methods reduce how much microfibers clothes shred. Below are some methods that will help all your clothes, not just those with synthetic fibres. Apart from reducing microplastic pollution, you can also reduce your energy, water, and carbon consumption, save money and time, and help preserve the garment's colours and shape.
Next time you wash your clothes, try to:
Wash at low temperatures (30°C) and wash less
Air dry your clothes instead of using a drying machine
Avoid synthetic washing detergents and softeners that can damage the clothes
If you can, get a microfiber-catching tool, like a microfiber bag or ball
Or, get a special microfiber filter for your washing machine
7. Mend and repair your clothes.
Another good habit for all your clothes, not just with polyester fibres, is mending and repairing them. As mentioned before, clothes that rip and tear release more fibres into the air and water. Thus, taking care of that damage as soon as possible helps prevent this.
Making the clothes last longer will always pay off. You will end up spending less money and time thinking about shopping. Remember, loved clothes last, and they will be there for you longer.
There are many youtube tutorials to help you learn the basics. Suppose you don't have the time or are, like me, afraid to only cause more damage, find a local tailor. Tailors can sometimes save things you never thought of saving. Additionally, they can alter and refresh your old garments and give them a new look.
8. Demand transparency from fashion brands
Finally, not everything should be on the individuals. Brands and manufacturers have a far bigger power and need to take responsibility for their own products.
As consumers and citizens, we have the power to make that happen. There are many initiatives and collectives you can support to help introduce better legislation and put pressure on the fashion industry to clean its microplastic mess.
To start with, you can join Fashion Revolution and their campaign for transparency in fashion. In their own words, Fashion Revolution advocates for a clean, safe, fair, transparent and accountable fashion industry. They believe in a global fashion industry that conserves and restores the environment and values people over growth and profit. Their actions go far beyond the issue of plastic pollution and aim to change the industry as a whole.
About the author:
Tena (Thinking Threads)
I'm a Content Marketing & Communications specialist based in Brussels, Belgium. Endlessly curious and restless, I'm always looking to challenge how we think about fashion, style, and sustainability. Through my writing business, Thinking Threads, I work with small to medium ethical brands, businesses and NGOs, helping them redefine their industry's standards.