Your wardrobe might not be the first place you think of when it comes to plastic. But, hidden in plain sight, this planet-destroying material is rife in our closets. How is this the case and why does it matter? We discuss the extent of the problem and how we can make a difference
The production of clothes has doubled since the early 2000s, with the industry expecting to produce a staggering 102 million tonnes of items by 2030 worth a mammoth $3.3 trillion. This exponential growth is, in part, thanks to our rapid consumption of new additions to our wardrobes - we’re buying more clothes than ever before, but wearing them fewer times. Retailers feed this habit by offering more collections than ever – brands in Europe went from releasing an average of two collections a year to some releasing as many as 24 – creating a cycle that keeps us coming back for more to stay on-trend. Because there are so many releases, the garments’ longevity isn’t the aim – a piece only needs to last until the next collection is released, perpetuating this cycle of demand.
But why is fast fashion’s mass production of cheap, throwaway clothing and the constant cycle of buying, wearing and discarding it creates, a problem? Its catastrophic environmental impact. The fashion industry’s ability to churn out regular new collections of clothes at an affordable price for consumers is partly due to the synthetic fibres used to make the clothes. The most popular is polyester. Costing half as much per kilo as cotton, it’s the perfect material for creating the sheer volume of clothes that are in demand, and its flexibility means it can be blended with other fabrics for use in a range of different garments. In fact, it’s estimated that synthetic fibres will account for 73% of total fibre production around the world, with polyester making up 85% of this.
The prevalence of polyester has a huge environmental impact right through the garment’s life cycle, from its creation to where it goes at the end of its life. To make plastic-based synthetic fibres, you need fossil fuels. Created from finite resources like crude oil and coal, fossil fuels are responsible for destruction of land, water pollution and producing huge amounts of carbon dioxide that trap heat in the atmosphere. And there are no signs of demand for these resources slowing down – BP predicts that plastic production will account for 95% of growth in demand for oil.
Once clothes are made, the pollution doesn’t stop there. Washing our clothes releases an estimated 500,000 tonnes of microfibres into the ocean every year which is the equivalent to 50 billion plastic bottles. One wash alone can flush more than 700,000 microscopic fibres into our water systems, most of which is thought to pass through sewerage systems and end up in our environments. These fibres don’t break down in the ocean, can be fatal to marine life, finish up in our food chain and even end up in our bodies.
And when we’re finished with our clothes? In the UK alone, 300,000 tonnes of clothing sits in landfill every year, where the synthetic fibres can take around 200 years to decompose, or is burnt in toxic incinerators with the fumes polluting our atmosphere. What’s even more infuriating is how a lot of the clothes being burnt are unsold and unworn in a practice that is sadly commonplace in the fashion industry. So much energy and resources go into making clothes that will never be worn, while destroying them pollutes our atmosphere with toxic fumes.
As is often the case, it’s the corporations and retailers that need to stand up and make change. But as consumers, what can we do to tackle this overproduction of clothes woven in plastic?
Buying new? Buy better
If you’re browsing the rails for a new plastic-free outfit, you need to know what to look out for. Garments won’t have ‘plastic’ written on their label; instead it’ll be terms like polyester, acrylic, nylon, lycra, spandex, elastane, polyester fleece or polyamide. If these appear on the washing label, you know it’s a no-go for your plastic-free wardrobe.
Instead, look out for natural fibres like cotton (fairtrade and organic is the best bet as it’s grown without the use of fertilizers or pesticides, and everyone in the manufacturing process is paid fairly), linen, hemp, wool, viscose or lyocell.
Or if you don’t want to contribute to the fashion industry by purchasing something new, consider buying second hand. Check out charity shops and vintage stores, your friends’ wardrobes, or even shop your own wardrobe for long-forgotten garments. Whilst you may still end up with plastic-based, synthetic clothes in your wardrobe, you’ll be extending their life and saving them from an early demise in landfill or the incinerator.
Care for your clothes responsibly
With the prevalence of synthetic fibres, there’s a high chance there is at least a few in your wardrobe already. So how can we minimize their effects? Using products like a Cora Ball or a Guppy Friend are handy ways to filter and catch the microplastics that are shed during washing and prevent them from going into our water. After washing, you can dispose of the fibres in your usual bin (ideally in a closed container to reduce the chance of them being blown away and ending up in the environment).
Additionally, only wash your clothes when necessary. We’re often in the habit of chucking clothes straight in the wash after wearing once, but sometimes leaving the item out to air is enough to freshen it up to wear it again.
When you do wash your clothes, bide laundry powder is a sustainable, plastic-free way to clean them. We only use natural, vegan and non-toxic ingredients so you can wash your clothes with a clean conscience.