Updated: Nov 21, 2018
The fashion industry is renowned for churning out clothes made from of all sorts of fabrics and materials, dependent on the season and trend. We all remember the iconic PVC outfits donned by Britney Spears in her "Hit Me Baby One More Time" music video, and who could forget Michael and Janet Jackson's PVC get-ups in the most expensive music video ever made, Scream? Aside from PVC, plastic features in more clothing than you might think-polyester, nylon, acrylic, organza and faux leather to name a few. In recent media, popular clothing brand ASOS even unveiled a recycled plastic clothing range.
Favoured for their waterproof and stain-resistant properties, polyester fabrics are woven into countless items from coats to cushions. The breathable quality of polyester, in particular, makes it a popular choice in the manufacturing of ath-leisurewear and a whole host of other garments. Although the properties of these fabrics can be usefully harnessed (durable, stain resistant school uniforms for example), what is the deeper impact of these plastics on the environment?
All clothing sheds minuscule particles when worn. We've learnt this because of forensic materials engineering, which has become more and more sophisticated over the last decade. One place in which clothes shed these tiny fibres is in the washing machine. Fibres less than 5mm in length, known as microplastic fibres, are flushed away into the water system during each load where they make their way into rivers and seas and - you guessed it- are then ingested by marine life. They subsequently then become part of our food chain. A recent study by Orb Media found that microplastics are also present in bottled water, which prompted a review by the World Health Organisation to assess the impact they may have on our long-term health.
What can we do to help? Choosing clothes made from natural materials, such as wool, cotton, linen or silk is one solution, however, this is not always possible or practical - wool or silk raincoats? Highly debatable. Apart from wearing clothes made from natural materials, we can also reduce the amount of microplastics from entering our food chain by only washing our clothes when really necessary and purchasing specialist wash bags to wash clothes in. These bags catch the microplastic fibres, preventing them from being flushed away. Using environmentally friendly detergents is also helpful.
Fortunately, the problem is beginning to become more widely recognised; in June of this year, the manufacturing of products containing microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products was banned. According to a government press release at the time, this move will eliminate billions of microbeads from entering seas and oceans. More is also planned. As part of the government's 25-year environment plan, £200, 000 has been earmarked for research into how microplastics from products such as tyres and fishing nets enter our waters.
Retailers are also beginning to demonstrate their willingness to become more plastic conscious; 142 brands have now signed up to the 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment, an agreement to be more sustainable, a move which will undoubtedly have a positive impact on the environment. Supporting these brands is a positive step.
Until next time, Autumn is drawing in, pass me my woollen blanket...