I would now like to focus on a different environmental issue that you may want to take into account when purchasing clothing: plastic pollution. First of all, you may wonder what clothing has to do with plastics. In the past we have focused on obvious issues related to plastic pollution such as water bottles, grocery bags, straws, etc.; clothing on the other hand is not so obvious.
Much of our clothing is made from polyester, which is a synthetic fiber typically derived from petroleum. The reason that polyester is so popular (accounts for about 50% of the overall fiber market and 80% of the synthetic fiber market; see Preferred Fiber & Materials Market Report 2017) is that it is very durable, low cost, versatile, lightweight, and is resistant to stains, fading due to sunlight, and wrinkles.
With all of the above benefits, though, comes several negative environmental implications involved in the production, use, and disposal of polyester products. We have already discussed the negative environmental impacts, which include enhanced carbon emissions, caused by the extraction of the petroleum (a non-renewable fossil fuel) required to produce plastic and polyester products. When compared to a natural fiber such as cotton, the energy required to produce polyester and the resulting carbon emissions are both almost 240% higher (Rana et al. 2015). Another significant source of damage to the environment occurs during the use of polyester products. For example, each time you use a washing machine to wash clothing made from polyester, it has been found that the clothing will shed a myriad of small pieces of plastic, or microplastics, that will make their way into our water bodies and air. We have discussed the issue of microplastics, and washing clothes represents one of the dominant causes of the fact that high concentrations of microplastics have been found in our oceans as well as our lakes and rivers and even our treated drinking water. Results from a recent study (De Falco et al. 2019) found that approximately 640,000 to 1,500,000 microfibers per kg of fabric are released into our water during washing.
You may also remember from two weeks ago that we had discussed the 7 categories of plastic that are used for recycling purposes and that Category 1 plastics are more easily recycled than the other categories. One of the primary uses of recycled Category 1 plastics (including water bottles) is in the production of polyester. Therefore, an interesting thought is the fact that you are essentially wearing recycled plastic water bottles when you put on a piece of clothing containing polyester.
So what’s the solution? The main thing that we can do is to focus on purchasing fabric products that are made primarily from natural as opposed to synthetic fibers. This would include linen, cotton, hemp, silk, cashmere, and wool. Though there are some environmental considerations to take into account with natural fibers as well (e.g. cotton requires large quantities of water), the environmental benefits still outweigh the costs when compared to synthetic fibers. Something to remember and that I would like to reiterate here is that if everyone purchased items only made from natural fibers, we could all but eliminate the major environmental and health concern of increased concentrations of microplastics in our water.
Expanding on the objective from two weeks ago, when purchasing new clothing, try to look for clothing made from natural fibers such as linen, cotton, silk, and wool, as opposed to synthetic fibers such as polyester.