When we read about plastic in the ocean, we see upsetting images of animals harmed by plastic. Or Instagram posts reminding us to forgo straws and coffee cups. But there’s one thing that’s not mentioned as much as it should be: microfiber and textile pollution. Much of our clothing today is actually made of plastic that’s released every time we do the laundry. This post provides solutions for textile recycling & tips to prevent this (click here to skip ahead), followed by the historical 411 on how we got here. Read on!
The top three uses of plastic today are product packaging, construction (think PVC pipes), and textiles (nylon and other fibers from our clothes and fabrics). Think of any clothing you own that includes Rayon, Polyester, Viscose, Modal, Acrylic, or Nylon on the tag inside. As I wrote in my last post on the history of nylon, these are all synthetic, i.e. fake, plastic materials.
Material like fleece is made with polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a type of plastic. Fast-fashion clothes from places like Forever 21, H&M, and Zara’s are often made of synthetics because they’re cheap and easy to produce for quick trend turnover.
Personally, I’m more tempted by athletic wear with stretch and moisture-wicking fabrics than by H&M. Thankfully, you CAN buy from retailers who use RECYCLED synthetic material for their active wear, such as Patagonia & Stella McCartney.
So, how do our clothes turn into plastic pollution?
These synthetic fibers contribute to a category of pollution that’s basically invisible to the naked eye (until it accumulates in animal bellies and our drinking water): MICROPLASTICS.
According to NOAA, microplastics are pieces of plastic debris that are less than five millimeters in length, about the size of a sesame seed. Microplastics occur from large plastic breaking into smaller pieces over time, or from things already made to be small.
When we do our laundry and wash clothes made from nylon, polyester, rayon, etc., small fibers and threads rub off and get sent down the drain. These plastic fibers are too small for our washers or municipal water treatment plants to catch.
So…we arrive at VGR’s two favorite questions:
To start, we should 1.) focus on reducing demand for synthetic fibers, 2.) use textile recycling to discard the synthetic fabrics we do use, and 3.) buy only eco-friendly and recycled fabrics in the future.
Thus…here are four (unsponsored!) suggestions for plastic-free clothes and textile recycling TODAY:
(To learn more about what the specific categories mean, click here)
Don’t create more demand for new synthetic clothes. Buy your clothes secondhand from thrift stores such as Buffalo Exchange or the Goodwill. Or my fav: vintage stores! You can also rent clothes from Rent the Runway, or shop online through platforms such as Poshmark or thredUP (thredUP screens items from sellers themselves so you can trust the quality of what you’re getting).
ThredUp also responsibly recycles any clothes it can’t resell. They have a great annual report that tracks their environmental impact and trends in secondhand shopping. Check out some of the amazing stats: secondhand shopping is quickly outpacing fast fashion!
In the last five years alone they’ve upcycled 65 MILLION items and kept them out of landfills.
Use Guppyfriend bags in your laundry to catch microfibers released from your clothes before they go down the drain.
Put clothes in the bag and throw in the wash. Water penetrates the bag and cleans clothes while keeping fibers from escaping into our water supply!
Or, instead of putting clothes inside a bag, try the Cora Ball, a coral-shaped ball that swooshes around in your wash water & catches fibers. According to their stats, “if 10% of US households use a Cora Ball, we can keep the plastic equivalent of over 30 million water bottles from washing into our public waterways every year. That’s enough water bottles to reach from New York City to London.”
There’re also off-brand ones available on Amazon, at a slightly lower price point. The ball options may not catch as many fibers because your laundry isn’t enclosed in a bag but might be easier with larger loads of laundry.
Have you squeezed every last ounce of life out of your favorite duds and don’t know what to do with the tattered remains? Do you still worry that your clothes will end up polluting the environment even if you re-sell or donate them?
You can recycle your clothing by sending it to textile recyclers who specialize in nylon or other synthetic material processing. See below for a huge list of places that will responsibly recycle your clothes, shoes, sheets, towels, and even bras!
- Terracycle Fabrics and Clothing Zero Waste Box: Purchase a box to fill with clothing and fabric to ship to Terracycle to be repurposed.
- H&M, Garment Collection Program – You can drop off your textiles from any brand, in any condition, at any H&M store globally and they’ll recycle it for you. Call ahead to double check and make sure store employees know you’re coming by
- The Bra Recyclers: An organization that will find a way to recycle, reuse or repurpose bras. You can find a drop-off station or mail old bras directly to them
- Local animal shelters like the Humane Society or SPCA in your area: Often they are in need of towels, blankets, sheets for animals
- GemText: Free textile recycling based in the Pacific Northwest
- Soles 4 Souls: A national shoe recycling program.
- Green Tree: Free textile recycling drop-offs located at specific NYC farmers’ markets.
- Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles: An online platform that will help you find the nearest textile recycling outlets near you.
- Nike, Reuse-A-Shoe: Nike collects old athletic shoes from any brand- they’re ground up and used to create courts, fields, tracks and playgrounds.
- Patagonia, Worn Wear – Bring back your unwanted Patagonia clothing and accessories to any Patagonia store and they’ll recycle it and give you store credit!
- The North Face, Clothes the Loop – Recycle clothing and shoes from any brand at North Face stores
(This list was originally published by Trashisfortossers.com)
It goes without saying that all of the above are great options for creating a zero-waste wardrobe for any individual or family. Focus on buying fewer items with better quality, items that will last longer. Check out this 6 minute video about how to identify clothes that are well made and durable:
Combine all of the steps above into a wholehearted life philosophy by applying all three Rs together:
Reduce: Lower your demand for new clothes. Check out Marie Kondo’s famous book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, or her Netflix series, to inspire you to live a joyful life with less stuff! When you decide what doesn’t spark joy, recycle it responsibly.
Reuse: You can reuse textiles by buying used clothes from the above suggested retailers, or other needed products made solely from recycled material. Use a guide like Sustain Your Style to determine which materials have the lowest environmental impact, and the video to identify clothes that will last. Recycled materials and organic are better than just plain cotton, which is often grown with pesticides and other bad practices.
Recycle: Once you’ve gotten as much use as you possibly can out of your clothes, recycle them through one of the textile recycling options above so they can be part of the circular economy once more. Once you’ve used and removed all synthetic-fiber-based clothing from your home, buy only eco-friendly and recycled (hopefully still second hand!) clothing items in the future.
So how did we get to this point and what did humans do before synthetic fabric?
Pre-war vs. Post-War Fabrics
To the vintage shoppers & thrifters: have you ever wondered why it’s way easier to find clothes from the 1950s than the 1940s? It’s partly due to the Great Depression and wartime that fewer clothes were produced in the 1940s than the 50s, but I think it’s also because prior to the 40s clothes were made from cotton and other natural materials that biodegrade over time, whereas the nylon and polyester of the 1950s and beyond will last forever.
Silk, wool, cotton, and linen were all popular materials prior to synthetics. Members of a household would have made a family’s clothing, either servants or mothers and their children. Even in wealthier homes, lace-making and embroidery were common hobbies; if clothes weren’t sewn at home, seamstresses and tailors were close by.
These home sewers also “knew fabrics well and could tell by eye and feel if a given cloth would last or fray after a few wears. They also could tell if something was sewn well using proper techniques, or if it was thrown together cheaply.” (www.mnn.com).
In my last post, I reviewed Nylon’s history as the first viable synthetic fiber to drive the increase in synthetic, mass-produced clothing and plastic EVERYTHING following WWII. The other synthetics followed. (Though Bakelite and celluloid hard plastics came before nylon.)
Chemical Companies + Fashion
“Clothed in plastic from head to foot, the American of tomorrow will live in a plastics house, drive a plastics auto, and fly in a plastics airplane….The average person has become a plastic showcase without knowing it.” Popular Mechanics, May 1940.
After the war, DuPont also produced Dacron polyester (1946), Orlon acrylic (1955), and Lycra spandex (1958). Manufacturers loved synthetics when traditional raw materials were harder to get right after the war; fashion designers loved the creative possibilities of new colors, shapes, and accessories.
Chemical companies even provided these new fabrics to couture fashion houses and hired famous photographers to drive demand, showing up in Dior and Chanel by 1955. As Manhattan became the “fashion center of the world” DuPont used its New York offices to promote its new synthetics. Throughout this time, fiber science technology fused with fashion in a totally new way, using cultural and economic forces to create our staggering American clothing industry.
From 1947-1970, the median American family income doubled. And they did spend, spend, spend. This new American wealth and materialism also represented a superiority complex over Communist scarcity during the Cold War.
Permanent creases, wrinkle resistance, color fastness, and other labor-saving qualities also appealed to everyday young women who wished to avoid household ironing and other chores. They could just “wash and wear” these new materials. Between 1950–1956 alone, washing-machine sales in the U.S. tripled!!
Nylon was recycled during wartime but it seems nothing much followed in the decades immediately after–just a whole lot of nylon stockings, clothing, and other materials going into the landfill, oceans, second-hand stores, or sold in estate sales after Grandma passed on.
The artificial shiny look of 50s, 60s, 70s synthetics has mostly been phased out of today’s modern wardrobe but the plastic fibers remain staple ingredients. When the thrill of plastic finally wore off, it stopped being the “material of the future” and became just another mundane thing. It vanished from sight not because people stopped using it but because people stopped noticing it.
Nowadays, recycling plants working to recycle nylon and others are growing. Nylon has been more expensive to recycle because it cannot withstand high heat that would otherwise sanitize it for reuse. The development of adequate nylon recycling technology is still new but it’s catching up. And, these recyclers ARE showing response to competitive demand among clothing and product manufacturers for recycled nylon.
For example, Patagonia and Stella McCartney are two notable companies selling clothing and other products made from recycled nylon material. Patagonia, in fact, has been using recycled polyester, instead of new, for the last 20 years, see here. (Not sponsored, just cool!).
Finally, not only does the synthetic textile and fabric industry contribute to microplastic pollution, they are also a big contributor to global warming with their carbon emissions. Combined, the global apparel and footwear industries contribute 8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions–almost as much as the total impact of the entire E.U. (See full report here)
The fabric dying and finishing stages of production are the most harmful. So, even if you buy items made from recycled material– which is still better than new–they’re still being dyed and finished and contributing to climate change. This is why a minimalist, “quality over quantity” approach is also necessary in combination with recycled, upcycled, or secondhand clothing.
So take my advice and make the changes above!
–Blaszczyk, R. (2006). “Styling Synthetics: DuPont’s Marketing of Fabrics and Fashions in Postwar America” Business History Review 80(3).