Our Problem with Plastic: Part 2

Following on from our previous piece on Problem Packaging, we continue our discussion on plastics within the fashion industry, with a focus on what will be one of the biggest environmental challenges to face the fashion industry, Microfibres.

Managing Microfibres

The UK purchases over one million tonnes of clothing per year, and this is rising. With 60% of our clothing comprised of synthetic fibres or blends thereof, these ‘plastic’ derivatives, such as polyester and acetate, are some of the most widely used. They are utilised by brands from low price point high street behemoths such as Primark, to premium designer labels like Isabelle Marant.

The greatest problem comes when we wash our dirty clothes. When washed our clothes shed, releasing ‘microfibres’ into the washing machine, then into our water systems and finally, the ocean. It is estimated that up to 200,000 fibres are released with every load of washing done in our home machines. 100% natural fibres such as cotton and wool are non- toxic and will break down naturally in the ecosystem. Synthetic fibres don’t.

This means that even using recycled polyester in our clothes does not prevent the microfiber problem.  As far back as 2011, it was studied and documented in Mark Browne’s ground-breaking paper that micro-fibres made up to 85% of human debris on shorelines around the world.This detritus is eaten by animals such plankton and small shellfish. The plastic filled plankton are eaten by bigger fish and so on going through the food chain resulting in one in four fish caught containing traces of plastic.

Innovations in coating fabrics to prevent microfibers escaping are currently in development by some of the worlds leading textile mills, but what can be done until then?

Make Gains: Greener Cellulose fibres

Alternative cellulose-based, or Lycocell, fibres are easily accessible and commercially established, providing a ready alternative to polyesters.

Tencel®  is a fantastic alternative not only to synthetics but other natural fibres with a limited resource too. Tencel® fibre is more absorbent than cotton, softer than silk and cooler than linen.

Viscose is already a staple in most fashion businesses fabric portfolio. Viscose is derived from tree pulp and fantastic at absorbing moisture making it a great component of active-wear fabrics. It’s soft to touch lightweight and fluid qualities make it a great alternative to polyester for soft separates.

Modal is derived from Beechwood, having a low environmental impact due to the nature of Beechwood’s natural renewal cycle. It is incredibly soft to touch due to the superfine nature of the fibres and is perfect to create luxurious feeling fabrications.

N.B All information on the above fibre properties are informed by information on the Lenzig website

Although we need a combined effort with washing machine manufacturers, fibre and fabric innovators and water treatment plants to remove the microfibers from the water systems, the fashion industry can start to create some fundamental changes to the fabrics used in the products we buy.

With Microbeads banned from cosmetics in the UK since January this year, It’s logical the next big conversation to follow will be Microfibres. The part the fashion industry will need to play in reducing the environmental impact of our clothing is to be determined.

So how do you feel about these issues and what each of us might be able to do in our day to day? Please share with friends or colleagues who will be interested or get in touch.

Image credits: title image: “What lies under” by Ferdi Rizkiyanto, washing machine girl: Photo by Victoria Palacios on Unsplash



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