Ocean Pollution: The Downside Of Washing Your Clothes

Making clothes out of recycled plastic seems to be a new trend that is taking the fashion industry by storm. Big brand names such as G-star Raw, Patagonia and even Timberland are innovating to give plastic trash a new life. Most famously, Adidas partnered with Parley for the Oceans to transform ocean waste (plastic debris and discarded fishing nets) into a high-performance running shoe using 3D-printing technologies. The repurposing of ocean waste to create this new shoe even won Adidas a spot in the Beazley Designs of the Year Awards.
Design initiatives like these, whether fuelled by marketing ploys or a genuine interest in the environment, are shining a light on issues of plastic pollution. They also champion for increased creativity and innovation within material sourcing in efforts to become more sustainable. However, is there a possibility that repurposed plastic used in the fashion industry will end up back in the ocean?
Microplastics? Never Heard Of Them
These are tiny plastic particles that are washed off products such as synthetic clothes. Yes, even those made from ocean plastics! A new study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found that up to 30% of plastic in the world’s oceans could be coming from microplastics. This means that up to 2.85 million tonnes of microplastics are released into our waterways every year, 2/3 of which is believed to be the direct result of washing synthetic clothing and tire abrasion. To put this into perspective, a study by the University of California Santa Barbara estimates that a population of 100,000 people release the equivalent of 15,000 plastic bags into local waterways each day from washing their clothes. One synthetic fleece jacket releases an average of 1.7 grams of microfibers per wash!
Furthermore, the IUCN report found that in areas where efficient waste management systems are in place, such as in Europe and North America, microplastics actually contribute more to marine pollution than plastic waste. This is important because it means that plastic ocean pollution is not simply an issue of litter and waste management, but a problem arising from our daily activities.
Microplastics may seem small, but this is a big deal. Consumption of microplastics by marine life can be extremely harmful to the health of marine organisms, if not fatal. Furthermore, microplastics carrying bacteria and toxins are able to travel up the food chain, potentially infecting the food we eat.
What Can Be Done?
Initiatives to turn ocean plastics into clothing might not be the perfect solution to combatting ocean pollution, but it is definitely a step in the right direction. If shoppers can’t give up their love for synthetic clothing, more research and development should be encouraged within the fashion industry to create stronger synthetic materials that do not leach as much. Additionally, washing machine manufacturers could introduce special filters that trap microplastics. However, until then, the responsibility is on us. If you want to reduce ocean plastics, simply limit the amount of synthetic clothing you buy, and when you do buy it, wash less!