Recycled Plastic Clothing: Solution or Threat?

Celebrity music mogul Pharrell Williams recently unveiled his latest project: He’s the face for G-Star Raw for the Oceans, a clothing line made out of recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles. Since the collection’s launch in September 2014, Raw for the Oceans has received a huge amount of media attention, and the clothes have been distributed to G-Star Raw shops around the world. On the clothing line’s website, the makers claim that Pharrell’s collection uses “the world’s first high performance eco-yarn.”

The concept of transforming recycled PET bottles into clothing is not new. During the last five years, a significant number of clothing companies, businesses, and environmental organizations have started spinning plastics into fabric in an effort to tackle global plastic pollution. But there’s a slight problem with this approach. Research now shows that microfibers — tiny synthetic threads less than 1 mm in size — could be the biggest source of plastic in the ocean. If this is the case, recycled plastic clothes could be doing more harm than good.

Dr. Mark Browne, an ecologist and postdoctoral fellow at the National Center of Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, California, has been studying plastic pollution and microfibers for 10 years now. He explains that every time a synthetic garment — one made of manmade rather than natural fibers — goes through the spin and rinse cycle in a washing machine, it sheds a large number of plastic fibers. Most washing machines don’t have filters to trap these miniscule microfibers, and neither do sewage plants that are responsible for removing contaminants. So every time the water drains from a washing machine, plastic filaments are swept through the sewers and eventually end up in the ocean.

In 2011, Browne published a paper in Environmental Science & Technology stating that a single synthetic garment can produce more then 1,900 fibers per wash. Fleeces seem to lose the largest number of filaments, but even sleek synthetic fabrics like nylon shed. When you think about how many times you wash a t-shirt or a pair of pants, the statistics become staggering.

To measure the extent of this problem, Browne and a team of researchers collected effluent samples from marine and freshwater sites around the world, and used a forensic process called vibrational spectroscopy to examine each sample. “It’s the same technique they use in crime scenes in CSI,” Browne explains. “So we treat the environment as a crime scene.” Browne discovered that every single water sample contained microfibers from polyester, nylon, acrylic, and other synthetic fibers, and that microfibers made up 85 percent of the human-made material within each specimen.

In a recent study published in PLOS One, Dr. Markus Eriksen of the Five Gyres Institute and a group of colleagues estimated that there are over 5 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean, cumulatively weighing more than 250,000 tons. With a global population of 7.2 billion people, that means there are about 700 plastic pieces in the ocean for every person on Earth. Browne’s research has indicated that another 33 billion tons of plastic will be added to the environment by 2050. “It’s a bit of an issue, to be perfectly honest,” Browne says with an uncomfortable laugh.This is bad news for a number of reasons. Plastic is toxic, and can cause harm to marine life and animals when ingested. Studieshave also shown that plastic can absorb other toxins like pesticides or organic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls. When microplastics enter the marine environment, filter feeders and other organisms eat them, and as plastic works its up the food chain, toxicity escalates to alarming levels.

Based on this evidence, it may seem surprising that companies and organizations have chosen to convert plastic waste into clothing as an environmental “solution.” Even though the science has been around for a while, Browne explains that he’s had a difficult time getting textile companies to listen. When he approached prominent clothing brands asking them to support Benign by Design— his research project that seeks to determine and remove features of textiles that have negative impacts on humans and the environment — Browne didn’t get a great response. Only one women’s clothing company, Eileen Fisher, offered Browne funding. Brands like Patagonia, Polartec, and Nike didn’t show any interest, Browne says. In fact, Todd Copeland, the strategic environmental responsibility manager at Patagonia, stated that Browne’s research was too preliminary to commit company resources to his work.

While Browne has had difficulty gaining support from large clothing brands, Adrian Midwood, founder of the Leisure Activist Group, is well aware of the problem. Leisure Activist Group launched a small-scale recycled plastic clothing line a little over a year ago as part of a waste redirection scheme in Fiji. Fiji has no national recycling program, Midwood explains, so his organization works with local Fijians to redirect plastic waste to Viti Levu (Fiji’s main island) so it can be used to create fuel, clothing, reusable bags, and other products.

When Midwood became aware of the microfiber issue associated with synthetic clothing, he got involved with UpGyres, an organization that is working to develop a lint filter for washing machines fine enough to catch synthetic microfibers. UpGyres is also exploring ways to upcycle synthetic lint into clothing and other accessories. “We’re very supportive of the issue,” Midwood says. “Our role is about putting the end product on the shelf, and working with UpGyres to change [lint] into a usable product.” According to Midwood, UpGyres draws on Browne’s research to inform their decisions.

In spite of the dangers of synthetic microfibers, the conversion of recycled plastic into clothing may have its benefits. As Midwood explains, most island nations have large supplies of empty plastic Coke and water bottles, but no waste or recycling management program. Without this infrastructure, large-scale pollution can occur, which could eventually create a high density of microplastic in the ocean. “If we capture the plastic and change it into something else and create some jobs, we’re still winning one side of the battle,” Midwood says. 

Midwood has also stated that his organization is dedicated to developing high durability fabrics that do not shed as many microfibers as other synthetic textiles, and that they will continue to research ways to minimize the company’s environmental impact. 

Ultimately, what seems to be important within the clothing industry is a willingness to use the latest scientific findings to inform textile manufacturing. “I think it’s great that we’re collecting plastic, and that we’re thinking about how to reuse it for other things,” Browne says. “But I think we need to be quite careful that we actually balance the costs with the benefits of each approach, and that we actually measure what each of our options are so that we can make informed choices.”

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