We know to avoid plastics because they are made of non-renewable fossil fuels, they are not biodegradable, and they leach hormones and toxic chemicals. What many of us are unaware of is that plastics make up the fabric of our everyday life. Look down at your shoes, socks, and pants. Do you know what the fabric composition of your clothes is? Look at your rug, your couch, your bed, and the sheets on it. Do you know what they’re made out of? Chances are they’re plastic, or at least part plastic.
Synthetic clothing, including polyester, polyamide, nylon, and acrylic, is very cheap to make and very bad for you and other living things. Because of its low price tag, it is tempting to buy, and retailers and manufacturers may even make it hard for you to choose otherwise. They hide plastic microfibers in budget-friendly fabrics called ‘blends.’
Synthetic fabrics such as nylon and polyester shed thousands of microscopic fibers with each wash cycle. After scientists started showing how these fibers end up on your dinner plate after passing through little fish to bigger fish, newspapers ran articles with headlines such as “Yoga pants are destroying the Earth.” Seizing the moment, eco-conscious brands began selling a washing-machine pellet, claimed to catch “some” of the plastic sloughing off clothing (Patagonia calls theirs ‘Guppyfriend’). Stephen Buranyi, writing for The Guardian, lamented,
“It slips through our fingers and our water filters and sloshes into rivers and oceans like effluent from a sinister industrial factory. It is no longer embodied by a Big Mac container on the side of the road. It has come to seem more like a previously unnoticed chemical listed halfway down the small print on a hairspray bottle, ready to mutate fish or punch a hole in the ozone layer.”
One-third of fish caught in the North Atlantic are contaminated with microplastic. It is even found in benthic animals living thousands of meters below the sea surface. Eighty-three percent of drinking water samples from around the world are contaminated with plastic fibers. While not all of it, quite a lot of this contamination of fresh and saltwater comes when synthetic fiber-based clothing is worn and washed.
It won’t help you if you decide that rather than throw your clothes in the washing machine you will take them all to be dry cleaned. The most common dry cleaning solvent is PCE (perchloroethylene), As Camille Scheidt reveals, “there are no perks to perc.”
“Once the solvent vaporizes, it is easily inhaled. Because of this, both dry cleaning employees and customers are directly at risk of breathing in the chemical. The dangers of perc are not isolated to the dry cleaning facility. Perc can follow you home. The chemical remains in dry-cleaned clothing long after it leaves the cleaner and the levels of perc in the garment will accumulate with each cleaning process. But, as you just learned, the perc doesn’t just stay in your clothing, it off-gases. A study found that if you were to put four freshly dry-cleaned sweaters in your car and step into the grocery store for an hour on a warm day, you would return to a car that was well exceeding the safe limit of perc exposure….
“But perc pollution reaches much further than your home and car. The contaminant has been detected in groundwater and both public and private wells. It’s also found in soil. Perc can become airborne from soil and water, and once in the air can be inhaled. The effect of perc on our bodies is severe. Short-term exposure at low levels can cause inebriation, dizziness, and irritation in the eyes, nose, mouth, throat, and respiratory tract. Short-term exposure to perc at high levels can cause fluid buildup in lungs, difficulty speaking and walking, headaches, drowsiness, dizziness, nausea, and irritation of skin and the respiratory system. If a person’s exposure to perc is at a high level, even for a short time, the chemical can cause unconsciousness and death.
“Prolonged exposure to perc can result in damage to the central nervous system, kidneys, and liver. It is recognized as a probable human carcinogen and linked to cases of cervical cancer, bladder cancer, esophageal cancer, kidney cancer, lung cancer, breast cancer, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In 2007, it was estimated that 1 in 10 wells in California were contaminated with perc.”
Unraveling Threads: How To Have A Sustainable Wardrobe In The Age Of Plastic Fabric
Did you know that most of your clothing is made out of plastic? The plastic from your clothing makes its way into our…
Fashion, unlike many other aspects of the plastic problem, is something consumers can change both thoroughly and rapidly. Besides producing and buying fabrics that last longer and can be recycled, they can purchase clothing made from organically-produced materials that naturally biodegrade, such as cotton, silk, linen, and wool. They can wash only when the clothes, especially outerwear, absolutely require it. They also have to be aware, when they are buying, not to purchase blends. Many fabrics can be recycled, even acrylics, but if it requires the entire structure be disassembled, thread by thread, remanufacturers may shy away.
Petroplastic fabrics are something we can, and must, refuse. Surely we can replace these with safer, healthier bio-based and biodegradable natural analogs? Finland’s bioeconomy has expanded on the strength of its forests. New developments in the fabric industry there will extend the value chain of forest-biomass to cellulose-based non-woven textiles, estimated to reach 47.7 billion euros in 2020.
“Cellulose fibers can be utilized in all textiles that can replace cotton and viscose which both have sustainability issues related to their production. Government strategy in Finland aims to double the current bioeconomy turnover from 60 billion euros to 100 billion euros before 2025,” says Tuula Savola, Program Manager of Business Finland’s BioNets program.
On the horizon in the rest of the world are new fabrics that provide a better experience and range of qualities than synthetics and blends. These include sustainably-harvested cork fabric as an alternative to leather; fish skin; mushroom “skin” (the capskin from Phellinus ellipsoideus, native to subtropical forests); pellemela, sustainably sourced from discarded apple peels and core waste from juiced apples; Piñatex® from pineapple processing waste; Orange Fiber yarn and silks; TENCEL® from beech and eucalyptus; and UV, mold and mildew resistant, naturally antimicrobial, absorbent and durable hemp.
Confronting Plastic Culture
Plastic culture is another matter. At the end of 2018, the Club of Rome issued this warning:
“The prevailing mantra that all economic growth is good defies the reality of life on a finite planet with finite resources. There is an urgent need for new economic thinking and new indicators that value quality as well as quantity in our economic metrics.”
Since most of the qualities we seek in plastic products can be found in biodegradable bioplastics, all we need to do is to change the economic metrics — how value is assigned. In many ways that realignment dovetails neatly with what is required to arrest and reverse climate change. Here are portions of the roadmap proposed by the Club of Rome, which I have amended slightly to include plastics:
- Introduce realistic pricing and taxation to reflect the actual cost of fossil fuel use and embedded carbon;
- Introduce carbon (or non-green plastic) floor prices;
- Tax embedded carbon (or non-green plastic) through targeted sales taxes;
- Fund research, development, and innovation;
- Converge carbon (and green plastic) markets and instruments into a worldwide structure;
- Replace GDP growth as the primary objective for societal progress;
- Adopt new indicators — such as the Genuine Progress Indicator — that accurately measure human development, welfare and wellbeing, rather than production growth;
- Establish explicit funding and re-training programmes for displaced workers and communities;
- Provide government assistance to enable older industries to diversify to lower carbon (and green plastic) production;
- Reframe business models and roles for declining industries such as oil, gas, and coal;
- Create an international convention, applying to nations and non-state actors alike, with legally enforceable rules and mechanisms for policing the global commons;
- Support citizen action and litigation against countries and actors exceeding legal limits;
- Require that market prices reflect the real costs of production, integrating social, environmental and ecosystem values into pricing;
- Ensure greater materials efficiency and circularity by 2025;
- Actively support efforts to restore degraded lands and water through methods such as open ocean plastics recovery and Ecosystem Regeneration Camps;
- Recognize that the degree of social change needed to make a successful transformation to a sustainable future will extend throughout society, requiring fundamental shifts in behavior and rethinking of national and community support and care systems.
For more than a quarter-century, world leaders, scientists, and expert advisers have been meeting to try to do something about climate change and the other tragedies of the commons, first chronicled in the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth study in 1972. After all these conferences and meetings we have international treaties like the conventions on Biodiversity, Deforestation and Desertification, and The Paris Agreement on climate change. But what has not changed is the trajectory of the crisis or the common understanding of interconnection and reciprocity. Rather than preserving biodiversity and forests, we are well into a Sixth Great Extinction event, losing forest cover, and desertifying faster than ever before. Rather than moving towards carbon neutrality, greenhouse gases are still growing, and the rate of yearly emissions even accelerated from 2016 to 2018.
Our problem seems to be the inertia of bad decisions made in the past. But humans can and do change their patterns of living, and that can most readily be seen in the world of fashion.
A few years ago I was teaching a Permaculture Design Course in Estonia when one of my students asked if fashion had a role in permaculture. She was fashion designer Reet Aus. Most mass-production manufacturers send about 18% of pre-consumer textiles as scrap to landfill or incinerator. Her Ph.D. dissertation was “Trash to Trend: Using Upcycling in Fashion Design” which opened up new possibilities within the fashion industry. Since 2002, Aus has been upcycling — turning unwanted materials into new, mass-produced garments. Her Bangladeshi partners source floor cuttings from Tommy Hilfiger, Bershka, Calvin Klein and Zara to add into her latest designs.
Her collection, including a treasured shirt of mine, is entirely from post-production leftovers. She keeps proving that clever design can salvage mountains of wasted textiles and the labor and natural resources spent to produce them, usually inside the same factory. Each garment in her line will save on average 75% in water and 88% in energy. She also improves the working conditions of the shops she helps in Bangladesh.
“In my opinion, we should keep oil-based fabrics in the loop as long as possible,” she told me recently. “Clothing in this area not the biggest problem but we can just stop making fabric from oil. We have a lot of good alternatives from algae to cellulose.”
Aus has tapped into an element of human nature that has led to our present predicament but could also point to the way out. It is not science or technology that confounds us from rejoining Earth’s ecology; it is social behavior.
As can be seen in zebras or wildebeest crossing a river full of crocodiles, herding is a rational defense strategy. Bunching herds protect their majority from predators, although a few will be lost to the needs of the river dwellers. Millions of years ago, our ape ancestors adopted herd strategy over lone individualism and it has served us well. Our fads and fashions are not optional — they are hard-wired to our genetic code. When we choose to wear a necktie and blazer, or a pants suit with jewelry and heels, we are signaling membership in a particular band. The cars we drive, the places we live, the foods we eat — all signals of belonging to one specific tribe.
Tribal instincts towards personal sacrifice are ennobling, unifying, heroic. In his book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger writes:
“The human conscience evolved in the middle to late Pleistocene as the result of the hunting of large game. This required cooperative, band level sharing of meat. Because tribal foragers are highly mobile and can quickly shift between different communities, authority is almost impossible to impose on the unwilling. And even without that option, males who try to take control of the group or the food supply are often countered by coalitions of other males.
“This is clearly an ancient and adaptive behavior that tends to keep groups together and equitably cared for.”
Fashion is how we signal not merely tribal allegiance but the values we share. When we choose to go plastic-free, whether in our clothing or the packaging and transportation of the things we exchange, we signal membership in the next order of humans on Earth: Homo regenesis.
This essay is adapted from my new book due out next year, Protecting our Future: Plastics (Book Publishing Company, 2019). You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.