IS RECYCLED PLASTIC CLOTHING ACTUALLY GOOD FOR THE ENVIRONMENT?

With our oceans drowning in discarded plastic and environmental crises on the rise, Madisen Crandall discusses the efforts of those in the fashion industry to recycle plastic into clothing and whether those efforts are doing more harm than good.

Bags to rags: the unofficial slogan for recycled plastic clothing. But could methods used by the fashion industry to cultivate such recycling actually be doing more harm than good? According to recent studies, microfibers which are produced as a result of washing synthetic textiles are actually responsible for a vast majority of the plastic particles found in our ocean system. And with the deep blue tide already choking on a myriad of discarded material, the efforts of those to reduce such waste need to be not only well-intended but also wellinformed.

Some bold, eco-conscious designers which you may have heard of include Pharrell Williams and his collection with G-Star Raw, Adidas in partnership with Parley for the Oceans, and Outerknown – launched by Kelly Slater. These designers, in conjunction with a long list of others, aim to recycle plastic waste found in the ocean into fashionforward, trend-setting items. And while their efforts are admirable, there is certainly something to be said of their contribution to the plastic plague of our planet’s waters, however unintentional. Dr. Mark Browne, founder of Benign by Design, a research project centered around the tiny plastic particles discarded by wash cycles, indicated the project’s intentions to eliminate the harmful byproducts of certain recycled textiles. His findings were met with much opposition from many within the industry. Companies which refused research include Nike, Patagonia, and Polartec, all of which suggested that Browne’s studies were “too preliminary” to support company action.


Some action, however, has been taken by certain companies upon Browne’s advice. Studio Swine, a design house based out of London, featured their innovative furniture designs at London’s Selfridges department store.

Owing to the nature of their designs, Studio Swine is credited for their contributive solution regarding the use of recycled plastic materials. Other companies have followed suit, producing entire lines of recycled plastic goods that do not require the use of a washing cycle. These products range from lampshades to earrings and are certainly one step toward a better future for humans and our planet alike.


Other prospective solutions include the installation of particle catching vents in washing machines. Though less feasible than alternative propositions, an industry-wide regulation requiring all new washing machine designs to come preinstalled with said filtration systems could be the most cost-effective solution to the plastic particle issue. In addition to its economic benefits, however, the installation of filtration systems on washing machines already on the market and in the homes of consumers becomes a near-impossible feat. One that, even if pursued, would take precious years to enforce that our ocean simply does not have. For reference, researchers estimate there to be anywhere from a few thousand to ten million plastic particles in a single load of laundry. Multiply this by the average number of loads of laundry a single person does in a year and the number quickly becomes astronomical. And that is just for one person. Consider the over 2.6 billion washing machines sold in the UK per year and it becomes a miracle that the entirety of the ocean is not made of plastic.

There are over 500 trillion plastic pieces weighing over 250,000 tons afloat in the ocean today. When these numbers are broken down, the amount of plastic contributed per person across the world is over 700 pieces per year. This waste is negatively impacting the health of our planet’s waters, killing wildlife, and slowly chipping away at the entirety of our ecosystem.   The scariest part is that much of this damage cannot be seen by the naked eye. The most impacted part of our ocean system vastly consists of microorganisms. The plastic particles produced by recycled textiles easily consume this highly vulnerable system, killing enormous amounts of organisms every day. This miniature war has massive consequences on the much larger lifeforms that abide in our seas. When even the smallest life-giving nutrient dies from pollution, a continual trickle occurs in the entirety of the food chain essential to the health of the ocean system. A chain which, believe it or not, we depend on every single day of our lives.


It is easy to place the issues of our oceans thousands of miles off the coast

where the water runs the deepest. All too understandable to assume that much smarter and more informed people in white lab coats are out there solving our planet’s issues. And while many intelligent people are actively working on solutions to the myriad of environmental crises we currently face, it is important to be aware of the significant impacts we can make individually regarding such issues. No one person can completely eliminate their contribution of plastic fibres, but there are ways to significantly reduce it.


Arguably the most cost-effective but equally time-consuming way is to hand wash synthetic clothing. The gentle nature of traditional handwashing versus a washing machine limits the amount of plastic waste from a single load of laundry, which on a larger scale is an invaluable contribution in and of itself.

Some environmentally conscious people have found success in reducing their plastic fibre contribution simply by switching to a liquid laundry detergent. Powdered detergents tend to agitate the synthetic fabric more, resulting in smaller and more numerous plastic fibers per load. Alternative washing machines with preinstalled filtration systems are on the market for those willing to invest in reducing their contribution, and some studies have shown that front loading washing machines produce fewer plastic fibres per load than top loading machines.

By far, the easiest way to reduce one’s plastic fibre pollution is an individual awareness for the very material clothing is made of. Armed with this information, it is easy to then make educated decisions about which companies to support and purchase from. Avoid companies and brands which notably produce cheaper synthetic clothing. Maintain distance from fast fashion clothing stores and online platforms, these clothes are likely to have been made quickly to match a trend and with highly pollutant fabrics. When in doubt, it is best to purchase clothing made from natural material such as cotton, wool, or linen; such information can be easily found on the tags of most clothing brands.

In addition to any of these options, you may also find success in conservation efforts by reaching beyond your closet. Consider companies with environmentally conscious goals which you can help advertise and encourage others to patronise. If there are businesses which you frequent whose efforts aren’t currently engaged in the environmental conversation, you can always write letters, begin campaigns, and petition for change. Share this article with others. Do your research and be prepared to relay your findings to those within your social circles. Start conversations about environmental issues like microfiber pollution. Generate a sense of urgency within your household regarding these issues and if you are already making efforts to conserve, review them and find out ways which you can do better.

Remember that any contribution is a large contribution both when adding to plastic pollution as well as in attempting to limit it. In other words, the more we are aware of how we impact the environment the more we will be able to help it. And with our ocean begging for our help, now is the time to not only reduce, reuse, and recycle – but, more importantly, rethink, review, and refine our methods of doing so. 

You can read more of Madisen’s work by following her blog at madiethewriter.blogspot.com.

Images via Unsplash

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