Plastic Clothes, Plastic Oceans

by Marie Heffernan

Plastic Dress, 1966. Photo Source: Vintage Fashion Guild

With the theme of Earth Day 2018 being “End Plastic Pollution”, I wanted to shed a light on plastics in unexpected places. I bet you can probably think of many ways plastic shows up in your life (even in efforts to avoid using plastic), whether it be the straw in your drink that you didn’t anticipate, the lid of your morning coffee, or the packaging for a quick bite to eat. But what you may not have considered is the plastic that is woven or knit into your clothing. Plastic shows up where you least expect it, from cozy fleece outerwear to high performance active wear. Any synthetic fiber, such as polyester, nylon, acrylic, and spandex, is derived from plastic, which originated from oil.

Most people are aware of the current issue of plastic bottles and containers ending up in our oceans, either from litter or poor waste management. We have seen the images of sea creatures being engulfed in plastic bags or choked by six pack rings. However, it is what we do not see which presents an even larger and more dangerous problem. Microplastics.

A microplastic can be defined as a particle of plastic that is 5mm or smaller, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In a 2011 study by Mark Browne, a senior research associate at University of New South Wales, Australia, microfibers were discovered to make up 85% of the human made waste on shorelines around the world. (O’Connor) The current estimate of microplastics in the ocean is 5 trillion particles. Yet a recent paper draws the conclusion that the actual number must be much higher, due to evidence that floods in 2015-2016 sent more than 40 billion microplastics out to sea from rivers near Manchester, UK. (Carrington) Microplastics have also been found to be very common in the Great Lakes, and even the second most common type of debris in Lake Michigan, according to research by Sherri Mason, a professor at State University of New York Fredonia. (Messinger)

The majority of microplastics showing up in our lakes and oceans come from the consumer use of synthetic clothing and textiles. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an estimated 35% of microplastics in oceans originally came from textiles, making it the largest source of microplastic pollution. (Owen) Primarily, it is the washing of clothing which sends countless tiny plastic fibers into these bodies of water. The microplastics are too small for filters in washing machines to catch them. Some are captured in wastewater treatment plants as sewage sludge, but most pass through into rivers and finally oceans. (Paddison). In his study, Browne sampled wastewater from washing machines, and found that a single synthetic garment can release approximately 1,900 individual fibers into rivers and oceans. (O’Connor) According to a Patagonia funded study by researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara, a synthetic fleece jacket releases about 1.7 grams of microfibers each wash. An older jacket that has been worn and gone through many washes has the potential to release twice as many microfibers as a new jacket. (Messinger) A study by a team at Plymouth University found that acrylic releases the most microplastics (728,789), followed by polyester (496,030) and finally polyester cotton blends (137,951). (Owen). Even recycled synthetic textiles contribute to the problem; as the material is still derived from plastic, it still has the potential to shed microfibers. A recycled textile is made up of fibers that have been broken down from either plastic bottles (polyester), fishing nets (nylon), or another source of plastic. However, experiments from 2017 by Mistra Future Fashion of Sweden have shown that recycled synthetic textiles produce less microplastics than virgin synthetic textiles. In their experiments, 843 fibers were shed from recycled polyester, while 1890 were shed from virgin polyester. Recycled fleece produced 1855 fibers in the washing experiment, while virgin fleece produced 2559 fibers. (Roos, Arturin, & Hanning)

Photograph: Will Rose/Greenpeace. Article Source: Carrington

So why the concern over something so small and unseen? Could it really be as bad as those frequent images of sea animals trapped in larger plastic debris? The answer is yes. Microplastics effect the rivers, lakes, oceans, the creatures living in them, and eventually have the potential to poison our tap water and food supply. Due to their size, microplastics are easily consumed by fish and other wildlife. In a recent paper, Rachel Hurley, from the University of Manchester, describes the potential for the smallest microplastics to enter the bloodstream saying, “It is the really small stuff we get worried about, as they can get through the membranes in the gut and in the bloodstream – that is the real fear.” (Carrington)

Sherri Mason found microplastics woven throughout the gastrointestinal tract of a Great Lakes fish. Mason’s main concern is that the microscopic plastic fibers have the ability to absorb persistent organic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and to accumulate them in the tissue of the animal. (Messinger) In another study from 2011 by Andrady, concentrations of other pollutants such as heavy metals, pesticides, and flame retardants were found to be a million times higher in microplastic particles than in the surrounding waters. (Roos, Arturin, & Hanning) Plastic fibers were even discovered in the digestive systems of animals living in some of the deepest habitats on Earth, about 11 kilometers (7miles) deep. (Mowbray)

So, what is the solution? Synthetic textiles make up the majority of our clothing. Most of us would be lost without our high performance synthetic active wear to work out in, and even just to live in with the current athleisure trend. Plastic Soup Foundation, an Amsterdam based ocean conservation project co-funded by the European Union, suggests that better quality clothing or fabrics coated with an anti-shed treatment could help. (Messinger) After testing different fabrics, brushing methods, and cutting methods, Mistra Future Fashion reported that the risk for garments shedding microfibers is reduced if brushing is reduced, if ultrasound cutting is used in the cut and sew process, and if microparticles are removed from the garment at production stage. (Roos, Arturin, & Hanning) Another potential solution is waterless washing machines. One model being developed by Tersus Solutions uses pressurized carbon dioxide to wash clothes rather than water. (Messinger) The director of Plastic Soup, Maria Westerbos, believes that a laundry nanoball could be used to trap plastic fibers in the washing machine and prevent them from being flushed out with wastewater. (Messinger) One example of this is Rachael Miller’s invention called the Cora Ball, a recycled plastic laundry ball designed to catch nanofibers in washing. If you don’t yet have a laundry ball, using a fabric softener can reduce the number of fibers released by 35%. Using a bio-detergent produces less pilling than a normal detergent, so therefore would produce less nanofibers. (Owen) Also, you have the added benefit of the garment still looking new!

The problem of plastic pollution can definitely seem overwhelming, especially when we are now discovering that plastic makes up so many products in our day to day life. With the knowledge that synthetic fibers can pollute the Earth’s waterways, creatures, and ourselves, my hope is that we make small changes to reduce the number of microplastics being released from our laundry. The best possible way to do this is to be conscious of the fiber content of the clothing we are buying. When possible, it would be best to purchase clothing made of organic, natural fibers. Any fibers released from washing a natural fabric would not harm sea life in the way that synthetic fibers would. Sometimes, however, one must use synthetic fibers for their function. In this case, the reduction of microplastics depends on the care in laundering.


O’Connor, Mary Catherine. “Inside the lonely fight against the biggest environmental problem you've never heard of”. The Guardian. October 27, 2014. Web. April 20, 2018.

Messinger, Leah. “How your clothes are poisoning our oceans and food supply”. The Guardian, June 20, 2016. Web. April 20, 2018.

Paddison, Laura. “Single clothes wash may release 700,000 microplastic fibres, study finds” The Guardian. September 26, 2016. Web. April 20,2018.

Roos, Sandra; Arturin, Oscar Levenstam; Hanning, Anne-Charlotte. “Microplastics Shedding from Polyester Fabrics” Mistra Future Fashion. 2017. Web. April 20, 2018.

Mowbray, John. “UN resolution aims to combat microplastics, as textiles concern rises” Eco Textile. December 9, 2017. Web. April 20, 2018.

Carrington, Damian. “Microplastic pollution in oceans is far worse than feared, say scientists” The Guardian. March 12, 2018. Web. April 23, 2018.

Cora Ball – Microfiber Catching Laundry Ball. Kickstarter. Web. April 24, 2018.

Owen, Jess. “Plastic Soup” The Overtake. April 21, 2018. Web. April 24, 2018.


“The Message is Clear ~ VFG Fashion Parade for the week of July 21st” Vintage Fashion Guild. July 20, 2014. Web. April 24, 2018.

Carrington, Damian. “Microplastic pollution in oceans is far worse than feared, say scientists” The Guardian. March 12, 2018. Web. April 23, 2018.


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