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July 30, 2021 5 min read
Every single piece of plastic that was ever made is still on our planet today. The properties that make plastic appealing, its durability and its strength, are also the cause of all of its problems. When we think about plastic pollution, the first thing that springs to mind is usually plastic bottles, straws bags and inordinate amount of plastic that supermarkets use to protect our delicate vegetables, but a growing area of concern is that of microplastics and microfibres.
An estimated 9.65 million tons of plastic enter our oceans each year and once it enters the marine environment, it gradually breaks into tiny fragments that can have a crippling impact on marine ecosystems and disrupt the food chain. The majority of microplastics are the same size as the plankton and small micro-organisms that the fish in the ocean feed on, so these fish end up ingesting the plastic and any toxins that come along with it. Larger animals and sea life will then consume those fish and with them all plastic and so on and so forth all the way to other wildlife and birds who feed on fish. The full extent of the problems from microplastics is not yet fully understood, but we do know that many of these plastics contain toxins and that a build-up of them can block fish (and other animals) stomachs and inhibit their ability to digest food.
Plastic is now everywhere.
When we say everywhere, we really mean everywhere! Recent studies have found traces of microplastics in some very disturbing places:
It’s in what we eat. Microplastics have recently been found in fruits and vegetables, with the highest concentration in apples (233,000 plastic particles per gram of apple), resulting in estimated daily intake of 462,000 plastic particles for adults, and 1,410,000 plastic particles for children
It’s in what we drink. In a study of 259 bottles water from 11 brands 93% contain microplastics. In the United States, 94% of tap water samples contained plastic and even more concerningly a test of 24 German beer brands found that 100% of samples contained microplastics.
34 percent of dead leatherback sea turtles have ingested plastic and 80 percent of seabird species have plastic in their stomachs. This means that they are likely regurgitating plastic into chicks when feeding, reducing the amount of essential nutrients needed for successful development.
Where is it all coming from?
Microplastics tend to be divided into two main categories according to their source, Primary microplastics that are directly released into the environment and Secondary microplastics that originate from larger plastic waste that has degraded.
Primary microplastics are estimated to represent between 15-31% of microplastics in the oceans with the main sources being: the laundering of synthetic clothes (35% of primary microplastics); abrasion of tyres through driving (28%); intentionally added microplastics in personal care products, for example microbeads in facial scrubs (2%)
Secondary microplastics account for 69-81% of microplastics found in the oceans and mainly come from things like the degradation of plastic objects, such as plastic bags, bottles or fishing nets.
Microplastics vs Microfibres
So far, we have mainly looked at Microplastics (technically defined as small plastic particles less than five millimetres in size), but a particular area of concern for the fashion industry is Microfibres. Microfibres are tiny bits of fibres that are shed from larger fibres such as those released from clothing when it’s washed or shed from ropes or nets in the ocean. Microfibres that come from synthetic fibres like polyester are themselves microplastics, but not all microfibres are microplastics and those that are shed from different fabrics can still cause harm in the ecosystem.
What you can do
Washing clothes wash bag like the Guppyfriend Bag collects microfibres shed from clothing and prevents them from being released into the environment.
Wash clothing a little bit less means less microfibres will be shed and can also prolong the life of garments meaning less clothing waste and production. Look for products that have antibacterial properties and air drying your clothes after use can help extend the time between washes.
If you can, avoid things like fleece and other loose synthetic fibres as these shed the most fibres. There are other options available for insulation layers (though things like goose down have obvious ethical issues) so look out for things like wool, natural Kapok or even synthetic downs that are encased to prevent shedding.
Dispose of clothing correctly. If it’s in good enough condition, then it’s always best to donate or sell your old garments. If they’re beyond saving, then look for your local fabric recycling centre and help prevent them from ending up in landfill.
For Microplastics more generally, recycle your plastic waste, don’t litter and try to reduce plastic consumption.
What we do
We use Polygeine, a silver based anti-odour technology in all our t-shirts and sweats so that you can wear them more and wash them less. As mentioned above this prolongs the life of the garments and reduces the amount of fibres shed.
All our clothes are made to last using high quality fabrics. Better fabrics shed less and by designing to last, we aim to reduce the amount of clothing waste that ends up in landfill each year.
We use Organic cotton and natural materials in many of our garments and much of the polyester we use is recycled taking plastics out of circulation and potentially preventing from from ending up in the sea or ecosystem.
It’s not all doom and gloom. There are various exciting new technologies on the cusp of commercial use that provide alternatives to plastic in clothing and packaging that will help to stem this issue.
Fabrics are currently being developed from a variety of natural source like mushrooms, coffee beans and milk protein. An Italian company is using grape waste from the winemaking industry to make a synthetic leather and potentially fabric for clothing.
A German company is manufacturing hard plastic materials out of pulp-based lignin, a by-product of the papermaking process that they have used to make toys, golf tees, and speaker boxes, while other natural plastic alternatives are being developed from seaweed and crab shells.
This is the fourth edition of our sustainability series. To read Edition 1: What is sustainable fashion,click here, to read Edition 2: Why We Plant Tree’s,click here or to read Edition 3: Clothing’s Chemical Problem,click here.
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