Washing Our Clothes is Poisoning Our Planet

 A Pile of Cosmetic Micro-Beads

A Pile of Cosmetic Micro-Beads

Written by Aurora Hinz, Edited by Allison Fern Clausis

When you think of mass pollution, what first comes to mind? Probably plastic. As we previously declared, "plastic is NOT fantastic". From the Pacific Ocean’s garbage patch (which is about the size of Texas) to the cosmetic microbeads that end up in the stomachs of marine life, plastic pollution is a threat that is not disappearing anytime soon. In fact, we can now find traces of plastic in every form of life; and yes, unfortunately, that also includes human beings.

As many people know, synthetic plastics are not biodegradable and take an enormous amount of non-renewable resources to manufacture and produce. Not even to mention the number of toxic chemicals that result in the waste of plastic production. The natural commonalities in the environment that connect us all as a planet (air, water, soil), are what is becoming contaminated. As Sherri Mason, an expert on plastic pollution at the Statue University of New York in Freedonia points out, once one of these commonalities is contaminated, the others are contaminated soon after (Orb, 2017). Here is where our laundry schedules come in. 

The clothing industry plays a major role in this deathly plastic pollution. In fact, as Greenpeace points out, the fossil fuels used for the production of polyester (a synthetic, plastic fiber) releases three times as much CO2 into our environment than when we produce clothing by using cotton (or another natural, non-synthetic fibers). Polyester, in particular, was introduced into clothing in the early 1950s and could be blended with rayon or cotton for use in the so-called ‘wash-and-wear’ fabrics that needed little or no ironing (Royal Society of Chemistry, 2014). This no-hassle, inexpensive alternative to natural fibers proved to be extremely popular. Today, nearly 60% of all of our garments include polyester fibers. We may think that production of this polyester is what is harming the environment with the release of CO2 into the air, and that is true. However, the daily use and upkeep of polyester by the consumer is affecting yet another commonality of ours: water.

 Dana. "7 Days of Garbage" - Greg Segal

Dana. "7 Days of Garbage" - Greg Segal

Simply washing our clothing has been widely reported as an important contributor to this harmful plastic pollution. It turns out that microplastics (plastic debris smaller than 1mm) and microfibers (a form of micro-plastic from the use of synthetic materials, i.e. acrylic and polyester) are contaminating our waters every time we do our laundry. A study released by The University of California Santa Barbara and the clothing company Patagonia found that every single wash released (an average of) 1.7g of microfibers (Paddison, 2016). This means that “on average 1,174 milligrams of microfibers are released from the washing machine (Paddison, 2016).”, and up to 40% of all of these fibers can enter into our freshwater sources and oceans. In a paper published by the American Chemical Society, scientists discovered that nearly 85% of all man-made debris on shorelines is microfibers. Is that surprising considering the number of loads of laundry we wash every month?

All consumers have the power to change the world by simply buying less- especially buying fewer products containing plastic fabrics. By reducing consumption, we can reduce the amount of product produced and focus on buying consciously. It’s time that we as consumers start using our buying power to demand that the clothing industry transition from harmful synthetic fibers to natural, less polluting alternatives. Demand change by reducing your everyday plastic consumption! Try purchasing products produced with natural fibers like wool, mohair, and cotton. You shouldn't have to choose between washing your clothing and polluting your body, our ecosystems, or other people around the planet.

For a comprehensive list of the ways you can cut down your microplastic pollution, click here and here.