Chemicals, Plastic Pollution, Sustainability, Water

Synthetic Clothing Contributes to Plastic Waste in Water

By: Lea Morgan Elston

The longevity of synthetic textile has become its main drawback. Fibers like polyester, elastane, nylon and rayon were developed in order to provide greater functionality than their counterpart ‘natural’ fibers— they have great durability, colorfastness, and are often water-repellant. Synthetic textile breaks down incredibly slowly, and textiles account for over 6% of municipal solid waste in the United States each year (meaning about 16,000,000 tons of textile waste). Besides clothing, synthetic fiber textile is used in many other products from air bags to school carpets. Synthetic textiles derive from petrochemicals. That is, textiles like polyester are made from long-chain polymers, which result from chemical reactions between petroleum, coal, air and water. This means polyester and other synthetic fabrics are essentially non-biodegradable.

The public knows that the shift toward arguably ‘disposable’ clothing has led to more textiles in landfill. Both ‘natural’ textile and synthetic textile landfill affect the environment. But the public should also know that when synthetic textiles deteriorate, they are a primary contributor to microplastics in the water supply, and that the effect of microplastics on human life is harmful. Microplastics are tiny plastic particles visible only under microscope. There is evidence that they escape many filtration systems, and that the amount of microplastics in our water is growing. Preliminary studies indicate that microplastics might then enter the food chain after being ingested by plankton, fish and other wildlife. This is concerning because the amount of harm microplastics cause is unknown.

The EPA regulates pollution in the water supply in the United States. Pollution occurs during two garment life cycle phases. First, manufacturing the synthetic fiber generates solid waste. Although filtration systems are required, some studies have found more microplastics in water near production plants than in water further away. Second, each time the synthetic textile is washed, microplastics slough from the garment into the water. Imagine each person who wears polyester-spandex blend activewear, and how much laundry that generates.

Some countries regulate this textile waste much more heavily than the United States, while a few major producers effectively do not regulate textile waste at all. China, for example, manufactures most of the world’s apparel but rarely enforces its regulations regarding microplastic pollution.

The United States should follow the Scandinavian countries and the European Union in requiring stringent filtration for both manufacturing textile waste and consumer textile waste. Greater regulation should be considered because without government intervention, there is little incentive for individual manufacturers or consumers to solve the collective pollution caused by synthetic textiles. Some industry groups like the Sustainable Apparel Coalition hold themselves accountable, but unless obligated, there will always be players who want to cut costs by not adhering to safe standards of production or use.

One way to personally reduce microplastic pollution is to use ‘natural’ textiles for your own apparel. Wool and silk have many of the same properties as polyester and nylon. Cotton woven with mechanical stretch simulates the properties of elastane.  Finally, please share to encourage greater regulation of microplastic pollution.

(My Desperate Search for Environmentally Friendly Underwear by Eben Bein — YES! Magazine)