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Translated with the help of Lucie Battaglia. Thank you Lucie!

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PLASTIC CLOTHING CAUSES MICROPLASTIC POLLUTION—Since the early 2000s, a large part of the population has begun to question single-use plastic grocery bags as well as the pollution that they cause when they end up in landfills, as they take up to 400 years to decompose. I worked in a grocery store at the time, and the controversy led to much more discussions after my favourite automatic question: “Hello, plastic or paper bags?”

Since then, we have noticed an emergence of reusable bags (also made of plastic…), biodegradable bags (It seems this solution is not ideal, due to recycling issues when people put those in recycling by mistake. I still think this is a good alternative.) and credits of $0.03 for people who do not use bags, or a $0.05 charge per bag. Over the past 10 to 15 years, our collective evolution led to a decision by the city of Montreal to ban single-use grocery bags (less than 50 microns, 0.05 mm) by 2018. This solution perhaps does not remedy the underlying cause, i.e. our lazy overconsumption, but that’s a whole other topic.

After all these discussions about plastic bags that cause pollution, why does no one talk about plastic clothing? They not only end up in landfills, but also cause a lot of microplastic pollution. Few are aware of this. It is true that polyester, nylon, or acrylic clothing is not for “single use” and that the correlation is perhaps less obvious between a “polyester dress” and “plastic” versus a “plastic bag” and “plastic”. The texture is different. The name is different. And the dress is so beautiful, not like an old pile of crumpled bags in the closet. The reality is that 60% of the textile fibres used today are plastic fibres. What is the environmental impact of consuming such products? It’s hard to tell.

A bit of history

Évolution des fibres synthétique (fibres de plastique) au 20e siècleThe first synthetic fibre (I prefer to call it ”plastic fibre”), nylon, was manufactured in 1938. It was only in the 1950s, after the invention of polyester, that synthetic fibres gained popularity. Then, in the 1990s, they took over the market. Today, the global production of fibres for textiles looks like this: 60% synthetic fibres, 30% cotton, and 10% other fibres. The use of plastic fibres is therefore a fairly recent phenomenon and is closely linked to oil exploitation. How does one explain this massive use? It’s very simple—production is cheaper. And in our wonderful world, too often “cheaper” means “better.”

 

Microplastic pollution

When we think about plastic pollution in the ocean, we tend to imagine large plastic debris like plastic bags, Styrofoam cups, abandoned fishing nets, and plastic bottles. It is well documented that many fish, birds, turtles, and marine mammals die every year due to ingestion of these plastics or entanglement. However, what is invisible to our eyes tend to also be invisible in our minds. There is very little awareness of “microplastic” pollution (pieces of less than 1 mm). No story, no protest, no discussion, nor controversy even. Is it because it is more difficult to show something which cannot usually be seen by the naked eye? Or is it because people love their clothes too much to strive for change?

Perhaps it’s simply because microplastic pollution is a relatively new phenomenon that takes us all by surprise. Who would have thought that wearing polyester clothing pollutes the environment slowly, in a subtle and sneaky way?  Remember that synthetic fibres have only taken a real momentum in the textile world since the early 1990s. This is a relatively new phenomenon for mankind. 26 years is a long time in a human life, but on an anthropological level, it’s nothing.

The link between microplastics and ocean pollution

Now what is the connection between wearing synthetic-fibre clothes and microplastic pollution in the oceans? Wearing these clothes is not problematic in itself, but when a garment gets worn, it becomes dirty and needs to be washed. When we wash synthetic clothing, fibres are released into the environment. Transported by water, they end up in rivers and ultimately, in the ocean. According to a study published in November 2011 by the Environmental Science & Technology magazine, a single polyester garment can cast loose more than 1,900 plastic fibres per wash. Each tested article produced more than 100 fibres per litre of wastewater. Fleece-type knits were found to be the most polluting. In spite of not knowing how cities’ water treatment systems manage these fibres, I have my doubts, especially when I think about Montreal dumping several million litres of raw sewage directly into the St. Lawrence River (many other cities do it too).

There is a direct link between microplastic pollution and clothing made of synthetic fibres. The other main sources of microplastics in the environment are cosmetics (“microbeads”), cleaning products with plastic granules, and industrial plastic powder destined to be melted into other products. It is estimated that 85% of all microplastic pollution in the ocean comes from textiles. According to researcher Mark Browne, the most abundant pollution to be found directly in natural habitats is derived from textiles.

——————————— Updated June 19, 2017———————————-

Finally, more awareness about microplastic pollution related to plastic clothing. I recently came across a very interesting video on the storyofstuff.org. It illustrates the micropollution problem very well and reflects on the complexity of recycled polyester. This same website offers an article for How Do You Solve a Problem like Microfiber Pollution?

Last year, and earlier this year, Patagonia, an outdoor apparel company well known for its ethical and ecological clothing (mainly using recycled polyester to make clothes), published two articles on its blog about microplastic pollution → “What Do We Know About Tiny Plastic Fibers in the Ocean?” And “An Update on Microfiber Pollution“. They make the promise to put time and efforts to better understand the effects of micropollution on the oceans … To be continued …

 

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About the author Ugo Dutil: I grew up at the ecovillage “La Cite Ecologique” from 1 to 11. I decided to go back and live there when I was 25 years old. I like this way of life that allows us to prioritize human relationships over material possessions. I’ve been working with Respecterre since 2013. Voluntary simplicity and responsible consumption, especially in textiles, fascinates me.

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