September Challenge: Microplastics
Q3 Theme: Personal Plastics Audit
July: Single-use Plastic Audit
August: Recycle the Right Way
September: Microplastics and Your Closet
Every garment you have has a story, an impact on the planet, local ecosystems, and the people who make it. From its creation (materials, design, craftsmanship) to your closet (wash, wear, and disposal) each piece of clothing in your closet has a life-cycle with a lasting impact.
If you love clothes and the creative, expressive style that fashion affords, but don’t love fashion’s impact on the planet, choosing sustainable fabrics is one of the first things you can do to make your wardrobe more eco-friendly.
The clothing industry is regarded as one of the most environmentally damaging and inhumane enterprises in the world. This industry is flooded with Fast Fashion – garments made quick and cheap with the emphasis on getting current styles on the rack as opposed to creating quality, conscientious items.
Many clothes nowadays are manufactured with polyester, acrylic and nylon – all synthetic fibers – all forms of plastic. These synthetic fibers are ubiquitous in our garments, invisibly taking over our wardrobes and silently destroying our environments. How, you ask? Simply by washing your clothes. Synthetic fabrics release tiny plastic particles into waterways every time you do a load of laundry. Each cycle of the washing machine could release more than 700,000 microscopic plastic fibers.
The problem with microplastics is that—like plastic items of any size—they do not readily break down into harmless molecules and can wreak havoc on the environment.
“Scientists have... seen microplastics everywhere they have looked: in deep oceans; in Arctic snow and Antarctic ice; in shellfish, table salt, drinking water and beer; and drifting in the air or falling with rain over mountains and cities. These tiny pieces could take decades or more to degrade fully.”
XiaoZhi Lim, Nature, 2021
What’s in a label? That little patch is packed with information – even if it doesn’t explicitly say it all.
This month, let’s get better acquainted with our wardrobe.
The composition of an article of clothing isn’t always straightforward. Most apparel nowadays weaves a few different fibers together to achieve the final product. For the month of September, we challenge you to check the tags of your staple tops and learn what’s really in your clothes.
At the end of the month, send us your completed (or not-so-completed) worksheet using the Submit Your Work Form and we'll add 100 Impact Points to your rewards.
Here's a chart for you to record and assess what you find. [PDF] [XLS]
1. Synthetic Fibers
[Polyester | Acrylic | Spandex | Acetate | Nylon]
Synthetic fibers are man-made textile fibers. Though they exhibit different properties – they’re all essentially plastic. These plastic fibers are produced by reactions of fossil fuel products that generate polymer pellets. Pellets are liquefied and then forced through the fine holes of a nozzle called a spinneret. As the liquid emerges from the holes, it is cooled down so that it solidifies to form tiny threads. These threads are finally woven together to make fabric.
An Earth Island report found that every time a synthetic garment goes through the spin and rinse cycle in a washing machine, it sheds a large number of plastic fibers. One single synthetic garment can produce more than 1,900 microfibers per wash.
Polyester is the big-name in apparel. Demand for polyester has grown faster than demand for other fibers for at least 20 years, according to industry journal Textile World. By 2030 synthetics are expected to account for 75 percent of global apparel fiber production.
Expect to see a lot of synthetic fibers in your closet – they’re cheap to produce and fairly versatile, so they’ve become pervasive in fashion fabrics (especially fast fashion).
2. Natural Plant-based Fibers
[Cotton | Hemp | Linen | Tencel | Cork]
Plant-based clothing is clothing made from materials derived from plants, like shrubby cotton plants, the hemp plants, flax plants, eucalyptus trees, or even cork trees. Natural means there’s no microplastic pollution with every wash, and the item (if not chemically treated and processed) should naturally biodegrade – just like its natural source.
But natural fibers don’t automatically get the ‘green seal of approval’. How the material is farmed, harvested, dyed, and sewn all impact the local environment and the makers. Where an item is farmed makes an impact as well, because while crops can flourish in one climate, other areas require intensive intervention to maintain the farmland (that means more water, more energy, more pest control – more manipulation and destruction of local environs). For things like cotton, organic cotton is levels above conventional when it comes to sustainability. It means 90-100% less irrigated water, 60% less energy, natural pest control (like molasses traps), healthy rotated-crop soil, and uncontaminated rivers and lands [Read More].
*Similar to Tencel, the materials called Viscose, Modal, and Rayon are derived from wood pulp. Depending on where the wood is sourced and the process of converting it to fibers, it can be toxic and detrimental to the environment. It depends on the manufacturer’s standards.
3. Natural Animal-sourced Fibers
[Wool | Cashmere | Silk | Mohair]
These textiles are sourced from animals. Be it the fur/hair of an animal (wool, cashmere, and mohair) or the lustrous cacoon-forming fiber spun by a silkworm (silk), these materials are generated by animals and then processed into threads. Natural means there’s no microplastic pollution with every wash, and the item (if not chemically treated and processed) should naturally biodegrade – just like its natural source.
The issues center around the life and treatment of animals providing the materials. Animal agriculture is often harrowing with regard to the sheltering, care, and harvest of animal products. There are 3rd party organizations that assess the treatment and health of animals and certify a farm’s/business’ process to help consumers know if ethical standards are being met.
*Fur, Feather-Down, and Leather are also animal-based textiles. The collection is often inhumane to the animal; leather is also among the most toxic to create due to the extensive tanning and chemical processing.
Don't forget: You can always earn more points by picking up trash!
We award 40 points per pound of trash cleaned up (with photo evidence) - so get out there, clean up the planet, and earn some free Happy Earth merchandise!
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