The Plastic in Our Clothes – Is it a Plasticky Catastophe?

by Jo Salter
Founder, Where Does It Come From?

Plastic and its overabundance is a hot topic at the moment.  From single use plastics like straws and coffee cups to plastic particles in the air we breathe, our seas and our food chain, it seems that the world has woken up to just how much plastic has infiltrated our lifestyles.  There’s even plastic in our clothes!  In fact plastic has only been around 80 or so years and in that time we have created 91 billion tonnes of it – and we’ve recycled less than 10%.

So When did Our Clothes go Plastic?

Plastic started becoming a core part of the fabrics in our clothes from the 1950s when polyester was introduced into men’s suits by chemical company DuPont.  It seems quite funny now to see photos of 1960s and 70s chic with loud patterns on shiny, itchy fabrics, but I’m thinking it can’t have been the most comfortable of wears. However since when did comfort form the basis of fashion…..

Photo: Pixabay

The use of polyester and nylon grew, with improvements to its blendability with natural fibres, until it overtook cotton in 2007 as the world’s dominant fibre.  The most commonly used plastic, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), is made from crude oil.  This is the plastic used in our plastic bottles and which, when pulled into a long thread, can also be woven or knitted in to fabrics or blended with other threads such as cotton to make mixed (polycotton) fabrics.  In fact it’s pretty hard to avoid plastic in our clothes now when shopping – just check your labels.

 Plastic Fantastic – The Benefits of Plastic in Our Clothes

plastic in our clothes where does it come from? ethical fashion
Photo: Pixabay

Let’s be honest,  ironing shirts with a bit of polyester in is much easier.  We also like the stretchiness of our jeans (our Mums used to sit in the bath to shrink theirs to size) and, with the more modern plastic fabrics such as fleece and performance wear, we like the lightness and comfort.  The price can be pretty attractive too – compare an acrylic to a wool jumper or a polyester versus a silk scarf.

There are bigger arguments in its favour too.  Whereas natural fibres such as cotton or wool do have a finite production capacity – there is only so much land available – plastic production knows no such limits.  Dependent on the availability of oil, plastics can be produced cheaply without constraint.

So what’s the Plasticky Catastrophe?

Well there are a number of areas for concern:

Plastic microfibres from our clothes: When we do our washing the plastic in our clothes can shed tiny microfibers which then enter into our water system and from there into the air, the seas and into our food chain.  This great video from ‘Our Planet’ sums it up beautifully!  There are ways to cut down or eliminate these tiny bits of plastic though, for example putting your laundry in a bag during the wash.  Take a look at this one from GuppyFriend.

Recycling and Biodegrading: Unfortunately plastic doesn’t biodegrade – it won’t rot away by itself – so unless it is recycled (into more plastic) then it will be with us forever.  As I mentioned above we have only ever recycled 10% of the plastic we have created – the rest is still around either in use, in landfill or disposed of in some other location (the sea, rivers etc.).

Recycling is a good option for pure plastics but it is quite tricky to recycle mixed fabrics (such as polycotton) or mixed fabric garments such as items with different fabrics (eg. Cotton sleeves and polyester body).  There is work underway by companies such as Worn Again to enable the splitting out of mixed fabrics but this is still expensive and not so successful for low quality fabrics.  Cotton and other natural fabrics will biodegrade eventually in landfill.

plastic in our clothes where does it come from? ethical clothes
Photo: Pixabay

It’s not just the fabrics we need to consider either – add ons such as buttons, thread and labels need to be disposed of too.  Alternatives such as wood or shell are a much more biodegradable alternative.

So it’s simple then?  Ditch the plastic?

Unfortunately it’s not that quite as simple as ‘natural fabrics good, plastics bad’.  Oh no, I hear you say, I thought you’d be able to give me the answer.  Wait for it…..

Kala rainfed cotton – photo Khadi London

Carbon and Water FootprintWell firstly if you look at conventional cotton versus polyester production in terms of footprint then there’s not a huge difference – in fact cotton comes off worse when it comes to how much water it takes to keep it fed.  Take a look a this excellent report by WRAP for more information.  However, rain fed cotton crops like those generally grown in Africa or Kala Cotton in India are a much better solution in terms of water usage.  The growth of organic cotton also has huge benefits for the sustainability of cotton as a clothing fibre.

More sustainable methods of turning the raw materials into fabric can also cut down the water and carbon production.  Khadi is a traditional Indian handwoven fabric which uses low water in its production and virtually no carbon at all.  At Where Does It Come From? we use khadi for our Indian produced clothing and projects for business customers, such as scarves, T shirts and bags.  We also use African organic cotton for our African print range of tunics and accessories.   Find out more about our Sustainable Business Policies.

Hand Weaving Khadi Cotton for Where Does It Come From?

Fabric Composting and Recycling: In simple terms cotton will biodegrade and plastic will not.  (It obviously isn’t quite as simple as that – cotton does need certain elements to biodegrade efficiently – light, air, time – but the principle is there.)  However non-organic cotton will break down into all its component parts on biodegrading, and that includes the pesticides and chemicals used in its growth.  These will seep into the ground affecting wildlife and soil in that area.

Recycling of both cotton and polyester is becoming more common, with many brands using recycled polyester in their clothes (I have some really cool jeans from Howies with the stretch provided by recycled bottles….).  Initially recycled fibres were mixed with new to ensure the quality was acceptable but this has improved –  the first ever 100% recycled cotton dress being created in 2014.  There is some fascinating work going on to improve recycling – such as that by Worn Again, Blend and Econyl.

So What Can We Do?

Reduce your Clothes Shopping

fashion show
Photo: Pixabay

The key message here is that we all need to buy less.  By far the most damaging aspect of our clothing production can only be solved by us actually reducing the amount of clothes that we buy.  It’s a hard truth to face but in the UK the average household owns £4,000 worth of clothes of which they wear about three quarters.  Then every year we chuck about 350,000 tonnes of it (worth around £140,000 – figures from WRAP) into landfill ie. that doesn’t even include the stuff we recycle or ship out to markets in developing countries.

Keep your Clothes Longer

We need to keep our clothes longer and wear them more.  We need to extend their lives by passing on to friends, upcycling or selling them on.  If we can keep our clothes out of landfill for an extra 3 months per garment, it would save 5-10% of their carbon footprint (WRAP).

Shop Thoughtfully

100% khadi organic cotton shirts and scarves from Where Does It Come From?

When buying clothes it’s important to think about what your clothes are made of, as well as how much use you will get from them.  If buying new, shop from brands using organic fibres and if you want some plastic choose brands that use recycled.  As plastic users cut back on your single use plastics and recycle plastics that you do use – that will cut down on the amount of new plastic being generated

As fabric producers and brands we can continue to increase the organic production of fibre crops such as cotton, and the rain fed varieties.  For brands that use plastic (we don’t) there needs to be an increase in recycled plastic used in fabrics, and some understanding how that fabric is going to be recycled at the end of the garment’s life.

Visit our website to find out more about Where Does It Come From?’s work to create retail and wholesale clothing and accessories that are kind to the planet.  

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Published April 10, 2018 & Filed in Jo’s Soapbox,Where Does It Come From? Blog

Tags: carbon freecottonenvironmentethical clothingethical consumerethical fashionethical fashion ukkala cottonorganicplastic in our clothespolyestersustainabilityZero Waste

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