Is reusing Ocean Plastic to create clothing really sustainable?
Updated: Aug 29, 2022
The acute rise in pollution over the last few decades has been stark, and the problems that it is causing, and will continue to cause, are reaching a critical juncture. When we envisage ocean pollution, we often picture large bodies of plastic being fished from the sea, blackened marine animals swimming in oil, or large piles of garbage that have washed up on shore.
These visuals are always a blatant reminder of just how grave the condition of the ocean has become. In this article, we’ll look at a much less perceptible problem: micro-plastics and how the fashion industry significantly contributes to this issue. We’ll then assess whether reusing ocean plastic to create clothing is really a sustainable solution for the garment industry.
How do Micro-plastics get into the Ocean? According to New Security Beat, “the plastic we can see is only part of the problem. What we do not see so easily are the microscopic [plastics]... accumulating on beaches, in intertidal zones, and even in Arctic sea ice. These are synthetic micro-fibres: thin pieces of plastic, a sub- category of micro-plastics, that resemble a strand of hair.”
There are various sources of how these tiny particles enter our waters. One of the main culprits is, unfortunately, via our clothes! For fashion companies to cut costs, much of our clothes today are made from cheaper materials that come from plastic. Vox said, “Polyester, nylon, acrylic, and other synthetic fibres — all of which are forms of plastic — are now about 60 percent of the material that makes up our clothes worldwide.”
Check your clothing labels in your wardrobe, and you will probably find these materials listed on the tag. When we wash our clothes, the plastic material breaks down into particles and gets rinsed into our water systems and ultimately into the ocean. A 2016 study by Plymouth University revealed that a 6 kg load of laundry containing acrylic sweaters shed over 700,000 fibres, and a load with polyester garments shed almost 500,000.
One of the main ways the fashion industry is attempting to combat this issue is to create clothes from ocean plastics. Many brands are now focused on using plastic that has been retrieved from the ocean with the specific intention of making clothes from them. But is this actually eco- friendly, or are they just trying to cover up this significant problem they contribute to?
Taking a Closer Look The idea of using ocean plastic to produce clothes was initially met with optimism. However, as this developed, there have been several concerns raised. There has been a call for fashion brands trying to increase their recycled material production to avoid claiming that these clothing items are ‘sustainable,’ as it is misleading. There are a few different reasons for this. Recycled plastics break down quicker compared to regular, or what is known as virgin materials. Clean Sailors, a non-profit organisation raising ocean conservation awareness, says, “Researchers have noticed that clothing made from recycled plastics actually shed these harmful microfibres at rates over double that of clothing made from virgin materials.”
One estimate says that plastic particles washed off from products such as synthetic clothes and textiles contribute to 35% of primary micro-plastics polluting our oceans.
Clothes made from recycled materials are often of lower quality and are therefore discarded much quicker than regular clothing, thus accelerating their fate of meeting the landfill. Much of these plastics find their way into the ocean due to poor management of the landfills. A whopping 85% of all textiles go to the dump every year! This is a major problem because plastics can only be recycled a certain number of times.
For example, plastic from PET bottles can be recycled around ten times. Clothing that is made from this material has a set lifecycle.
It won’t be made into apparel again as the quality of the plastic is diminished after it has been recycled one or two times. Instead, it will be transformed into another item with less durability. Once it cannot be recycled any longer, it will return to the landfill, eventually breaking down into micro-plastic.
Using ocean plastics for clothing does indeed halt more plastic from being produced for such items, which is a good thing. But although it is believed that purchasing clothing made from recycled materials is helping to save the planet, it is often just kicking the can down the road. There have been some huge initiatives undertaken to retrieve plastic from our waters. Unfortunately, though, much of this is undone when it is turned into clothing, as it is sent back to the ocean upon washing, and the item itself will return to the landfill. Rinse and repeat.
How We Can Be More Sustainable With Our Clothing Choices As pointed out already, so much of modern clothing is made from materials that come from plastic, so it can be challenging to find eco-friendly options on the high street. One of the most sustainable options is to buy apparel made from linen. Linen is made from the flax plant and is minimally damaging to the environment compared to what has become conventional clothing. Linen lowers your carbon footprint and is 100% recyclable. It is also bio-degradable and therefore needs to be treated with dyes, so try your best to choose linen items that have a low environmental impact.
Bamboo and hemp are also great options! They are entirely natural and biodegradable plants. They grow at speed and do not require much water to maintain, making them a renewable and sustainable source of material. Acquiring them in their organic forms is optimal as they avoid the harmful conditioning processes and are free of plastic that would break down upon washing.
Getting the most out of your clothes and buying second-hand is also effective at minimising plastic pollution. Old clothes have been shown to shed fewer micro-fibres than newer items. And if you notice a hole in your t-shirt, why not try to mend it, rather than going out and purchasing a new one? You might even find a new hobby this way.
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