Plastic. It's everywhere. It's one of those problems that is so big, it feels like your own actions will not make a difference. Yet, every one of us - collectively - can make a huge difference. In fact, we have no choice. Our waterways are being choked by plastic - the oceans as well as fresh water streams and lakes. It's easy to spot the large plastics like plastic straws and bottles, but what is even more devastating are the micro-plastics that come from polymer or synthetic fiber clothing.
Synthetic materials are primarily to blame for the 'dead zones' in the oceans. Did you know that each time you wash a piece of clothing made from a synthetic material (think yoga pants and fleece jackets), you are releasing 9000 micro-plastics into the world's waterways? These are microscopic pieces of fiber that fall into the water stream during textile processing, sewing and wash. Worse yet, you are literally inhaling these micro-fibers when you pull that fleece jacket, or other synthetic-based fabric garment, over your head. Microfibers are airborne and can be found in the most remote places on earth - even in the dark reaches of the Himalayas.
It's a problem that no one can really escape. Even if you haven't bought a new hoodie in years, if you eat fish or crustaceans, you could be eating micro-fibers.
What's additionally alarming is that, according to the BBC, these plastic fragments contain chemicals similar to the sex hormone oestradiol and can impact fertility in animals and humans. Many other endocrine distrupting chemicals are used in the process of making synthetic fabrics - which are released in the micro-plastic.
The detriment of plastic shedding has prompted action in California and New York with the introduction of bills requiring the labeling of all synthetic based clothing. Conneticut has already passed laws requiring all synthetic clothing to be labeled with this warning: “This garment sheds plastic microfibers when washed.” Much of the apparel industry is against the proposals claiming that the proposed laws would have no effect and just add costs to the consumer. In reality, an additional label cost pennies, I think the real danger to the retail industry is that people will consider their purchases more carefully and there's nothing wrong with that.
While in Vancouver for the Sustainable Apparel Coalition annual member meeting, I was struck by the presentation of Maria Westerbos, the founder & director of the Plastic Soup Foundation. The foundation works to reduce the amount of plastics being dumped in our oceans and waterways. Specifically they focus on the devastating effects of micro-plastics and nano-particles - much of which originate in polyester-based fabrics.
“Every minute, the equivalent of one full garbage truck of plastic trash is dumped in the sea. That is 1440 trucks per 24 hours and 8 BILLION kilos per year.” - Plastic Soup Foundation
- Invest in clothing and home goods that are made from natural, biodegradable materials like cotton, wool, linen and silk.
- Check your labels. Even high end brands use polymer based synthetic fabrics. If you have trouble pronouncing the fiber in your clothing, it's probably a synthetic.
- Avoid purchasing cheaply made fast fashion clothing - because most likely they are using synthetic materials.
- Wash your synthetic clothing less frequently or gently hand-wash and line-dry. Use it several times before tossing in the wash. The best thing you can do is actually hand-wash or delay-wash your clothing - use it several times before throwing in the wash. All that wash water adds up!
- Reuse your old yoga gear and outdoor stuff...recycle or trade with your friends. Don't buy the new stuff - its the most toxic.
And keep fighting the good fight against plastics in general: avoid single use plastic bottles, bring your own silverware and just say no to plastic straws!