An image from Stella McCartney's Fall 2018 campaign, which was meant to highlight waste in the context of the fashion industry. This was shot in a landfill. Photo: Harley Weir for Stella McCartney
You’ve seen the heartbreaking images of animals’ stomachs full of plastic and what should be pristine beaches, littered with plastic. But did you know that the mere act of washing your polyester top also contributes to the huge ocean plastic issue, the one where it’s forecasted that there will be more plastic in the ocean that fish by 2050?
60% of our clothing contains polyester (either 100% polyester or blended with another fiber). The rise of fast fashion has spread cheap polyester, making it extremely abundant. Polyester is a synthetic fiber (other examples include acrylic, nylon, rayon) made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource that creates damaging environmental impacts during the extraction process, during washing and just sits in landfills without biodegrading like natural fibers when we get rid of it (by the way, on average, a woman wears an item of clothing only seven times before getting rid of it). We’re living in a throwaway society and it’s having major negative impacts on the environment.
Let’s take a look at the “usage” part of the clothing life cycle for polyester top. A study has found that each time we wash clothing that includes a synthetic fiber, up to 700,000 microplastics are released into our waterways and ultimately, our oceans. There is currently an estimated 1.4 million trillion fibers in our oceans, gulp. These small plastics attract bacteria and pollutants in the water around them, accumulating harmful chemicals that are then passed into small organisms eaten by small fish, that are then eaten by bigger fish, which end up on our plate. By the way, have you ever noticed that you sweat a bit more when wearing a polyester top? It’s true. Polyester is water-repellant, meaning that rather than absorbing sweat, it allows perspiration to build up inside the garment – it’s non-breathable – thus you sweat more. Gross!
You may be wondering what you can do to stop this insanity. First of all, avoid buying synthetic clothing. If you already own clothes with synthetic fibers, please purchase a Guppyfriend, a washing bag that filters microplastics and captures them on the hems of the bag so you can properly dispose of microplastics instead of letting them flow into our oceans. Wash your clothes fewer times - unless your top is stinky (were you wearing polyester?), it doesn't need to be washed after each wear. Only buy quality, more expensive clothing over cheap, trendy pieces and keep author Anna Lappe’s quote in mind, "every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want". Finally, contact your favorite clothing brands and urge them to use fewer synthetics.