Living near the beach, I am constantly reminded of how much plastic is polluting our oceans and endangering the lives of birds and sea creatures. Animals often mistake little bits of plastic, such as straws and bottle tops, as food and obviously can’t digest it, so they die as a result. I really had no idea about the extent of the issue, until I saw a picture like the one below a few years ago. Since then, it pops into my head every single time I find plastic on the beach.
So when I came across the Plastic Free in July challenge, I decided to give it a go. The challenge is to (attempt) to forgo all single use plastics for the whole month. Single-use means anything that is only intended to be used once and then thrown into the rubbish. The main focus of the challenge is straws, take-away coffee cups, plastic bags and bottles. This challenge has also made me aware in general of the single-use plastics in our society. Now I see plastic everywhere! Almost everything you buy is wrapped in some sort of plastic rubbish- food, toys, bed sheets and even books sometimes!
That got me thinking about the fashion industry. How is the issue of plastic connected with the fashion industry? Other than the obvious use of plastic bags, is what we wear contributing to plastic waste in any other ways?
In 2015, Patagonia, the outdoor clothing label who are always at the forefront of environmental issues in the textile industry, funded a study by the University of California to find out how synthetic fibres were ending up in waterways, meaning rivers, beaches, lakes and eventually also end up being consumed by wildlife and even by the fish that are caught for human consumption.
As part of the study, five Patagonia garments, including pieces made from fleece and synthetic materials were put through various, rigorous wash tests in both top-loading and front-loading machines to examine how many fibres are shed over the lifespan of a garment. It turns out, that it is a lot. In fact, thousands of these tiny pollutants are creating problems for our environment. The study found, that an average of 1.7 grams of micro-fibres are released every wash. That may not sound like a lot, but over the lifespan of the garment, this number increases. In fact, older garments shed up to 80% more fibres per wash.
Check your wardrobe. I bet most of your garments have been constructed out of some kind of synthetic material. Whether that be fleece, nylon or polyester; you are wearing and washing these items on a regular basis, if not everyday. (A little tip: if you want to reduce your microfibre impact, wash these types of clothing only when absolutely necessary!)
And if you are particularly fond of those super cheap, fast fashion brands, here is yet another reason to steer clear of their clothing: low quality fleece shed almost double the amount of micro-fibres over their lifespan than higher quality garments (such as Patagonia, of course).
This is really only the beginning of the journey into the connection between micro-fibres from clothing and their effect on the environment. More research is needed to conclude the extent of the damage caused to the ecosystem and how harmful they are to humans. Research is also being conducted into other areas, such as the role of washing machines and detergents in the release of fibres and if technologies can be developed in that area to reduce the shedding.
Thankfully, there are some super innovative and clever people out there in the garment industry, who are using diverting plastic from our oceans and using it to create fashion- basically using something bad to create something good.
It is estimated that there are currently 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic floating around in the ocean. I can’t even begin to fathom what that must look like! But G-Star have found a way to use the pieces that wash up on the shorelines. They recycle the plastic into denim for their clothing line, ‘RAW for the Oceans’, the fourth of which was released earlier this year.
To create these innovative pieces of fashion, G-Star work in collaboration with Bionic Yarn– who spin the plastic fibres from discarded rubbish into yarn, and Parley for the Oceans– who encourage the re-purposing of ocean waste and have also removed a whopping 700,000 PET plastic bottles from the oceans for each of the ‘RAW for the Oceans’ collections.
When surfing champion, Kelly Slater, asked himself, what are we wearing and where is it coming from, he didn’t like the answer. Instead of just accepting that’s how it is, he decided to develop his own sustainable clothing line, which launched only last year.
Outerknown is an all-round sustainable brand, but they also produce a line of clothing in partnership with Aquafil. Aquafil provide incentives to fishermen to hand in their old nets and then they are transformed, along with other types of consumer waste, into a nylon yarn called ECONYL. This yarn, and therefore the products made from it, can be repurposed an infinite number of times without the quality ever diminishing. Imagine that, your great-great-great grandkids could be wearing something made from your old clothing!
Fishing nets are a major hazard to sea life. Lost and abandoned nets can float around the ocean for years, continuing to take the lives of many of these precious creatures. A study by the by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and U.N. Environment Program (UNEP), found that modern plastics can last up to 600 years in the oceans and about 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear is discarded in oceans every year.
There you have it. Plastic is a major environmental issue all round and affects the garment industry in various ways, from causing pollution to providing creative solutions. You can’t ignore the problem because plastic literally surrounds us in our everyday lives. I could go on about this topic forever, but instead, check out this short documentary that will show you the extent of this enormous problem.
Do you know of any other fashion brands that are turning plastic waste into clothing? Let me know below!