Synthetic fabrics are among the biggest innovations born from the 20th century. It would be hard to imagine our lives without them - inexpensive and durable, they've been engineered to offer consumer-friendly functions such as stretch, waterproofing and stain resistance. Scan the care labels in your closet, and you're sure to find an abundance of polyester, nylon and acrylic.
Manmade by a chemical process - the byproduct of crude oil - synthetic fabrics are essentially plastic. When we wash synthetic materials, they release microfibers - tiny fibers less than 5 millimeters in length - which pass through domestic wastewater into sewage treatment plants, where some of the fragments are captured as sewage sludge, but the majority pass through into rivers, and eventually oceans. A single synthetic garment can release up to 700,000 fibers per wash.
It adds up. A recent study by leading expert Dr. Mark Browne found that 85% of manmade debris sampled from shorelines is the result of microplastics. Another study found that 73% of fish caught at mid-ocean depths in the Northwest Atlantic had microplastic in their stomachs. The two biggest culprits? Single-use packaging and synthetic clothing fibers.
These microplastics are toxic on their own, but they also act like sponges, soaking up other toxins in the water. They end up being ingested by marine life, devastating habitats and contaminating the entire food chain, all the way back to us - microfibers have been found in a wide range of consumer products. The mismanagement of our waste is coming back around.
Conscious thinking says that the solution is within the problem. These are the efforts I've taken personally that are accessible and applicable to our modern lives. I'd love to hear what works for you (and what doesn't!)
- Wear organic! Natural fibers, like cotton and wool, degrade naturally over time, whereas plastics take millennia to degrade. However, even natural fibers contain chemicals used by growers during production, unless you buy organic.
- Wash less! This extends the life of the garment, saves water (and time!) and reduces microfibers.
- Read labels! Similar to food, there are "hidden ingredients" in fashion. Faux fur and vegan leather, for example, are two of the most toxic textiles out there.
- Wear recycled! Our modern lives call for function, so synthetic fabrics still serve a purpose. Look for recycled polyester options which divert plastic water bottles from landfills and require less energy than virgin polyester.
- Invest in a microplastic catcher for washing your synthetic garments, like Guppyfriend. Proper disposal of the collected fibers gets sent to the landfill rather than the ocean.
- Go minimal! Less stuff = less impact.
- Take a stance against single-use packaging! I've trained my favorite take-out places to wait to package my food until I arrive with my own containers (Pyrex - glass and made in USA).
This largely means no delivery (except pizza - no plastic! Hurray!).
It's a small sacrifice to make if you focus on the big picture.
It's, like, Burning Man - moop-free, radical self-reliance.
That's all for now!
As the Beatles say, "I'm gonna try, with a little help from my friends..."