Dr Elizabeth Cullen: It's time to bring an end to the era of plastic fashion

We are all aware of the dangers of plastic to our environment and have seen the distressing pictures of the damaging impacts of plastic on sea creatures.
Dr Elizabeth Cullen: It's time to bring an end to the era of plastic fashion

We are all aware of the dangers of plastic to our environment and have seen the distressing pictures of the damaging impacts of plastic on sea creatures. Plastic is associated with the fashion industry, and some materials used in the fashion industry may impact on our environment, and therefore on us.

Synthetic materials are now commonly used in the manufacture of our clothes; it is estimated that worldwide, 60% of our clothing is now made from synthetic materials. Polyester is the single most used textile; other fabrics include nylon and acrylic, all of which are forms of plastic.

When these materials are washed, small fibres are released from the fabrics, which are then generally discharged into a wastewater treatment plant. Tiny lighter fibres can pass straight through the treatment plant and, as a result, synthetic materials are a significant source of microplastics in our rivers and seas.

It is estimated that there are over a quarter of a million tons of plastic particles in the world’s oceans comprising a minimum of 5.25 trillion particles; 93% of these are in the microplastic size range of less than 5 mm.

Heavier microfiber particles sink and remain in the sewage sludge. This sludge is then spread on agricultural land. It is estimated that the majority of global microplastics may be in the soil and the Irish Environmental Protection Agency estimate that over a billion microplastic particles are spread on agricultural land in Ireland each year and that “this is probably an underestimation”. These fibres persist and have been detected in soil up to 15 years later, where it is thought that they may pose a threat to soil fertility.

Unlike natural fibres, which decompose over time in the natural environment, clothes created from synthetic fibres are non-biodegradable, and may spend 30 or more years in a landfill before they start to decompose.

Which materials do these particles come from and do they pose a problem? Polyester fleece and woven polyester fabrics have been found to release the highest number of microplastics, and over 6 million fibres have been documented from a 5kg wash.

Polyester-cotton blends release fewer particles than either polyester or acrylic materials; nevertheless, a 6kg load of acrylic materials can release over 700,000 fibres per wash. Of note, the number of particles has been noted to increase with higher temperature washes, and with the use of detergents.

Zooplankton are the tiny organisms at the bottom of the marine food chain. Zooplankton which may have consumed microplastics are then eaten by larger creatures, and it is therefore no surprise that microplastics have been found higher up in the food chain, in crabs, and in one-third of fish caught in the UK. Microplastics are also ascending the marine food web in Ireland, and have been found in fish in Lough Corrib, invertebrate species in the River Slaney, and in seabird’s eggs in Galway.

Tap water from twelve countries was examined for the presence of microplastics; overall, 83% of the samples contained microfibers. Microplastics have been discovered in both Irish well water samples and in mains water.

The impacts of these microfibers on health are not yet known. The World Health Organisation reported in 2019 that “The fate, transport and health impacts of microplastics following ingestion are not well studied and no epidemiological or human studies on ingested microplastics have been identified”. The eminent medical journal The Lancet reported that it is most concerning “how little is known about the effects of microplastic consumption on human health”.

There are several ways in which we can reduce the levels of microfibers. The most important thing that we can do is to demand that synthetic clothes be labelled as sources of microfibers. Then we can choose not to purchase these products, in particular polyester fleece, and instead use wool, linen, cotton and other natural materials for our clothes.

We can also keep our clothes for longer, and use secondhand shops, as new clothes release the highest amount of fibres. We can also wash at low temperatures, use liquid detergent as it is less abrasive, fill the washing machine, as this reduces friction, reduce the spin speed, and avoid tumble drying. Some products reduce the microfibers released e.g. Cora ball or Guppy Friend. Using a fabric softener can reduce the number of microfibers released by up to a third.

We also need to investigate other sources of material, e.g. ethically sourced cotton or hemp, and to design washing machines that can trap these fibres.

According to my dictionary, there are two definitions of fashion: one refers to the latest style of clothing or other item, and the second definition refers to a way of doing things.

Fashion can makes us feel good about our bodies. The fashion of how we source our clothes also need to be examined. Are we are now facing into an era when we can feel good about ourselves and our impact on our environment too?

Dr Elizabeth Cullen is a member of Irish Doctors for the Environment - www.ide.ie

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