While many of us are trying to stop using plastic as much as possible, there’s one area of our lives that still contains a huge amount of the problem material: our clothing. In fact, synthetic fibres such as polyester make up more than 60 percent of fibres produced globally. And although some brands are starting to move towards alternatives, a recent study found that 50 percent of fast fashion is currently made from virgin plastic—meaning the industry is still responsible for vast volumes of brand-new plastic entering the world.
It’s important to remember that plastic comes from fossil fuels, which are the primary drivers of climate change. “Synthetic fabrics are a big part of the business model of oil and gas companies,” Josie Warden, co-author of the paper Fast Fashion’s Plastic Problem and head of regenerative design at London’s Royal Society for Arts (RSA), tells Vogue.
It’s a problem and it’s not going away fast.
With a separate, new report in June estimating that synthetic materials are set to make up nearly 75 percent of all textiles by 2030, it’s clear we’re still heading in the wrong direction. “[These materials] are seen as a growing field of output for oil and gas companies, which ultimately is problematic because we know that we need to be winding down the extraction of fossil fuels,” Warden adds.
Not only this, but synthetic fabrics release millions of microplastics into our oceans and waterways when we wash them, presenting a serious threat to marine life. Given that synthetics are not biodegradable, they can stay around for up to 200 years, all the time releasing more harmful microfibres and potentially toxic chemicals into the environment. With a shocking 92m tons of textile waste being produced every year, according to a 2017 Global Fashion Agenda report ending up in landfill or being incinerated, the urgency of the situation can’t be underestimated.
“[Plastic] is everywhere and we have to do something about it,” says Liesl Truscott, European and materials strategy director of the nonprofit Textile Exchange. “We’ve got to wake up to the [issues of] waste and microplastics, the impact on nature, biodiversity, and our food chain. It’s a problem and it’s not going away fast.”
Fashion’s reliance on synthetics
Fashion’s reliance on synthetics dates back to the 1940s and 1950s, when nylon and polyester first emerged on the market as a rival to cotton, wool and silk. Fast forward to today, and these fibres are more readily available than ever before. “They’re resilient fibres, relatively inexpensive and reliable,” Truscott explains. “Whereas cotton and other natural fibres may be a little bit more vulnerable to availability or weather conditions and climate change.”
Once you’ve produced it, can you recycle it? Is it going to end up in landfill in the same way?
Often, polyester is blended with cotton and other natural fibres to improve its strength and durability, but this causes an added problem when it comes to the end of its life. “It’s probably one of the worst options because you’ve blended a natural material with a synthetic,” Truscott says. “In terms of being able to recycle it and pull those materials apart for different recycling streams, it’s pretty impossible at the moment.”
The demands we place on our clothing nowadays also means plastic is difficult to eliminate from our wardrobes altogether. “We like our technical clothing, a little ironically, for getting out into nature,” Truscott says. “Synthetic fibres [are used] for its lightweight, high-strength attributes and being able to wick away moisture.” Activewear and underwear are also areas where it’s difficult to move away from plastic altogether because of the need for that all-important stretch.
What’s the solution?
Given the amount of plastic that already exists on our planet, recycled polyester — which is often made from plastic bottles or discarded fishing nets—is currently a better option than virgin plastic, but shouldn’t be seen as a long-term solution. “Recycled plastic in clothing will still end up being incinerated or put into landfill at the end of that second life, so it’s quite a short loop,” Warden explains.
At the moment, it’s still extremely difficult to recycle textiles into new clothes—with less than one per cent currently being recycled in this way. “There is very little infrastructure for the recycling of synthetic fibres,” Warden continues. Mechanical recycling, where textiles are shredded, usually reduces the quality of the fibre, while chemical recycling, which involves breaking down materials into chemical form, is energy-intensive and can also lead to toxic substances being released.
We’ve got to wake up to the [issues of] waste and microplastics, the impact on nature, biodiversity, and our food chain.
That’s why brands such as Pangaia are looking to move away from plastics altogether, with its new Gym collection being 90 per cent bio-based, using eucalyptus, seaweed, and bio-based nylon made from castor oil. “Pangaia Gym combines the best sustainable choices of fibres and treatments that work together to create a degradable activewear profile while still optimising maximum functional performance,” says Dr Amanda Parkes, Pangaia’s chief innovation officer, adding that it is now working on a “bio-based biodegradable synthetic” to replace nylon for 2022, with the aim of eventually using this to replace traditional elastane in activewear.
While such innovations are exciting, it will take time for these new textiles to scale up. There’s also still the need to consider what happens to bio-based materials at the end of their life. “Once you’ve produced it, can you recycle it? Is it going to end up in landfill in the same way?” Truscott asks.
In the meantime, fashion needs to directly address its consumption of plastic, with some sustainability advocates calling for a warning label to be put on garments that contain synthetics. Others, such as campaign group the Changing Markets Foundation, say legislation and a tax on plastic is needed to force companies to move away from a reliance on plastic. “We need a pathway out of conventional fossil-based plastic, and we need to set some ambitious targets that we can start making tangible,” Truscott concludes.