This modern economic and environmental epoch is a tale that can be told in the clothes we wear. Riding your bike or at the gym, What do you wear? Most of us choose to the popular performance fabrics that include polyester, nylon or similar synthetic polymers. Synthetic fabrics are generally intended to form fit or stretch to meet our mobility needs, as well as being strong insulators that dry easily.
Since its birth in the ‘50s, polyester been hailed as a “miracle fiber,” and no doubt it is impressive and practical in many people's lives, including this one. Essentially made by melting down petroleum-based plastic pellets, the individual fibers are then cooled as they are separated from the concoction before eventually being spun into a yarn. The finalized fabrics are sewn into pieces that are especially interesting in that they can be worn over and over without losing their shape.
Let us step into another vantage point. More than just being made from semi-toxic petrochemicals, these items are not biodegradable, so already, the products are unsustainable on multiple counts. Still, they challenge the environment further: Both nylon and polyester involve water-intensive processing methods.
Dyeing, washing and chemically treating polyester wastes large amounts of water; any unfixed dyes often wash away into nearby rivers and streams, with detrimental effects. Heavy metals and dioxins used in the polyester process also endanger ecosystems – the textile industry is one of the worst polluters of fresh water, with many of these processing compounds attributed to a host of diseases – including chronic illnesses, auto-immune dysfunction and cancer.
In America and around the world, sports and sportswear make for booming business. The demand for man-made fibers has nearly doubled in the last 20 years with the rapid growth of active apparel, valued at over $33 billion in 2014, only further pressures the petroleum supplies and the environment. The manufacturing facilities for many of these brands are concentrated in Asia, hidden from the eyes of American and European consumers. As well, sports have PR on their side, represented by the most powerful forces in marketing: professional athletes.
Image from Wikimedia Commons
Greetings from Plastic Beach
We have all seen shots of the colossal Great Pacific Garbage Patch floating around the seas, but now there’s another, much smaller, synthetic threat that’s been discovered washing up on shores across the world and raising serious concerns – known as microplastics.
These are classified as any plastic particle smaller than 5mm, as defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Although the debris is microscopic, in large quantities it poses a serious environmental risk. According to ecologist Mark Browne at University College Dublin, microscopic tidbits of acrylic, polyethylene, nylon and polyester have been discovered in increasing quantities on beaches across the coasts of India, Singapore and on both sides of the Atlantic.
Soon after, Browne and his team decided to look for a source by washing an assortment of polyester blankets, fleeces and shirts. Following several wash cycles and wastewater analysis, the researchers discovered a single garment or item can produce almost 2,000 fibers with each wash. Once these particles get loose in rivers and oceans, they are ingested by organisms, then working its way up the food chain.
The animals and people consuming these substances, both directly and indirectly, are exposing themselves to known carcinogens (these particles can persist in cells for months). Most would consider the fish feeding on these plastics unfit as food. As populations and resource needs expand in tandem, it’s we can see how pollution and sustainability will become a critical issue for fashion designers, brands and manufacturers alike.
Unless someone can invent and implement a method to capture the plastic filaments. Browne believes it will be difficult to address this problem without the commitment of industry leaders, especially those dumping large amounts of marketing funds into environmental sustainability campaigns. So far, Browne has only been able to convince one clothing brand, Eileen Fisher, to help fund his research.
Last year, Browne told the Guardian, “I think [clothing companies] have all put a lot of marketing money into environmental programs, but I’ve not seen evidence that they’ve put much money into research.”
As well, Browne has reached out to appliance manufacturers regarding washing machine technology and design, but none has responded. To address this silence from the market, he has since founded a group called Benign by Design, which is seeking out industries and service professionals who might benefit from his research.
While switching to natural fibers is often better for the environment, it’s unrealistic to expect a massive shift in that direction soon. Instead, Browne thinks we can find solutions within the design of the synthetic fabrics themselves, so he’s not letting anyone make excuses about inaction.
Going on he says, “Industry is saying, ‘you just have to do more work on it.’ But that will require someone to support it.” Until innovations arise, the problem can only be addressed by knowing what’s in your closet and shopping a little smarter.