On World Oceans Day, Stop Washing Your Clothes
This post originally appeared as part of our "Four Ways Businesses Can Go Green in 2017" article.
Remember not so long ago when we all went bonkers over microbeads in soaps and toothpastes, and they ended up getting banned in late 2015 (#thanksObama)? Well, consider that training day for a potentially much bigger problem: microfibers.
From a lonely fight launched in 2011 to an influential report sponsored by Patagonia released this past summer, scientists are sounding an increasingly loud klaxon about minuscule strands of plastic known as microfiber and their presence in our waterways.
In 2011, ecologist Mark Browne published an article in Environmental Science and Technology reporting that microfibers comprised 85 percent of plastic debris collected from 18 different shorelines on six different continents. The report also stated, “An important source of microplastic appears to be through sewage contaminated by fibers from washing clothes.” A 2014 study of thousands of samples from the Northeast Atlantic Ocean found microfibers in 90 percent of them. Now researchers are focusing on fresh water, such as the tributaries to the Great Lakes, where microfibers were recently found to comprise about 71 percent of plastic debris in samples.
Microfibers are shed from synthetic cloth, which is itself comprised of plastic—your polyesters, acrylics, and nylons. Recent studies indicate that these materials break down every time you wash them in a machine, shedding between 1.7 and 2.7 grams of microfibers each spin cycle for polyester and nearly three times that for acrylic. The wastewater from your washing machine eventually dumps out into rivers, lakes, and oceans. And researchers have found that these microfibers end up in mussels, crabs, fish, and even birds that prey on these animals, lodging themselves in the digestive system in a way that has ominous implications for those of us up the food chain.
Patagonia funded a recent report conducted by University of California at Santa Barbara that looked specifically at synthetic fleece jackets, the activewear company’s bread and butter. And the company is making intriguing strides in limiting its production and looking to make its clothes more durable. But if you ask me, it’s the fast fashion retail giants that need to be leaders on this issue. Inditex (Zara), H&M, and Fast Retailing (Uniqlo) are all on Forbes’ 2016 list of the world’s 20 biggest apparel companies and are rather infamous for their synthetic (but oh-so-on trend) clothing.
With some forecasters estimating that 98 percent of future fabric production will be synthetic, demand for clothing skyrocketing, and all-natural fibers a not-so-great alternative, environmentally speaking, the fashion industry needs to start seriously researching textile solutions unless it wants consumers to embrace the only environmentally sound alternative thus far: nudity.