With so many clothes being created using man-made fabrics, you’re probably wearing at least one thing that’s plastic. Here’s how it impacts the planet, and what you can do about it.
Trying to slash your plastic use? Chances are you’ll start with the obvious stuff – bottles, bags, food wrapping, straws. But what about the plastics that are less in-your-face? Check the labels in your clothes and you may find a fair amount lurking in your wardrobe, too.
According to the parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) , while some man-made textiles (such as rayon and viscose) are created from plant materials chemically dissolved then spun into fibres, most are made from plastic. That includes acrylic, polyamide and – the biggie – polyester, which now makes up approximately 70% of synthetic fibres.
Polyester is also known as polyethylene terephthalate or PET – the same stuff used to make drinks bottles.  And we’re wearing LOTS of it.
According to Greenpeace, polyester is used in about 60% of our clothes, and the expansion of fast fashion simply wouldn’t have been possible without it.  Unfortunately, such fabrics are impacting on our planet in more ways than one.
Let’s start with microplastics – extremely small pieces of plastic that are smaller than the size of a sesame seed. They’re in the environment as a direct result of the breakdown of consumer products.
The EAC says that as much as 20-35% of these microplastics in oceans are from synthetic clothes.  And they can wind up there by way of our washing machines. Research at Plymouth University found that an average washing load of 6kg could release an estimated 469,030 fibres from polyester and a whopping 728,789 from acrylic.  Taking it up a scale, we’re talking potentially trillions of fibres released each week in the UK alone. 
Then there’s climate change. When anything is made using oil pumped from the earth, you know there’ll be repercussions of the CO2 kind. And yes, according to the EAC, petroleum based synthetic fibres like polyester may use less water and land than cotton, but they emit more greenhouse gasses per kilogram. In fact, one study revealed that a polyester shirt has more than double the carbon footprint of a cotton one. 
The fashion industry is fuelling our climate emergency. And it’s something that the world’s poorest people have been feeling the effects of for a long time – yet they’ve contributed the least to the ways we’re destroying our planet. Families are being pushed further into poverty and hunger by increased flooding, droughts and storms, which are destroying lives, homes, livestock and crops.
There’s also no escaping the link between fast, throwaway fashion and the mountains of clothes that end up in landfill. Sustainability experts WRAP say we’re talking an estimated £140 million-worth of clothing each year.  Considering how many clothes contain plastic, you’ve got to think about how long that waste will take to decompose… Anything from 20 – to 200 years for a polyester shirt, apparently. 
But before you hide your head in your wardrobe, there are some positive developments. With the world waking up to fashion’s impact, more sustainable approaches are being explored, like the potential of fibre-to-fibre recycling and increased use of sustainable cotton.  The team at Oxfam’s textile recycling facility, Wastesaver, are working with experts at the forefront of textile innovations to explore fibre-to-fibre recycling and other ways we can make better use of the fabric from unsaleable clothing. As for microplastics, Professor Richard Thompson – leading expert in the field – believes more could be done at the design stage to reduce this, too, as different man-made textiles shed different amounts of plastic. 
Until the fashion industry changes, there’s plenty we can do as well. Because of the many issues involved – not just microfibres, landfill and CO2, but also things like water and land use – it’s not as simple as ditching synthetics and dressing top-to-toe in cotton and wool. But we can start by keeping and wearing our clothes for longer, whatever they’re made of. We can care for them in a way that lessens their eco impact.
And we can cut demand for new clothes and fight landfill, by buying second-hand . We reckon that’s a good place to start.
1 EAC report p31, section 77 https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmenvaud/1952/1952.pdf
2 Britannica – PET
3 Greenpeace stat
Within WRAP report: http://www.wrap.org.uk/sites/files/wrap/valuing-our-clothes-the-cost-of-uk-fashion_WRAP.pdf
Greenpeace article: https://www.greenpeace.org/international/story/6956/what-are-microfibers-and-why-are-our-clothes-polluting-the-oceans/
4 EAC report p33
5 Plymouth University – microplastics research
6 NFWI report cited in EAC report p33
7 EAC, p31, point 78
8 WRAP – £140 million stat
9 Good On You – 20 -200 years stat
fibre to fibre recycling
11 EAC p34 point 88 and 89