Why recycling ocean plastic into clothes is not a great idea.
After reducing our consumption, recycling and upcyling are two important ways that we can help keep harmful waste products out of our environment.
Take wearing vintage, giving old sails new life as sturdy bags or giving love to old worn-out furniture - all genuinely positive in making the most of 'waste'.
Recycling ocean plastic into new clothes, however, is not...
Because making clothes from recycled plastic; fishing nets, plastic bottles, you name it, is actually returning plastic into our seas (and our drinking water)…
There have been huge, well-intended efforts over recent years by many organisations to remove plastic from our seas. These incredible efforts have not only helped keep our seas clean but are also helping to reduce the amount of plastic in our food chain, too.
These efforts, however, become hugely undermined when the retrieved plastic is then turned into clothing, such as t-shirts, athletics and leisure wear, and swimwear, which sadly, when washed, all return plastic particles back into our waters.
Currently, we are cleaning up larger, capture-able pieces of plastic from our oceans, but alongside are returning them back into our waters as tiny particles. These micro particles are very hard to detect and near-impossible to clean up once they reach our waterways and seas, however, have far reaching and pretty unpleasant consequences.
We look into why recycling plastic into clothes is not so environmentally en pointe…
What exactly is the issue with clothes made from recycled plastic?
There are a couple of reasons why clothes made from recycled ocean plastic (and plastic materials in general) are not good for us or for our waters:
- Every time we wash our clothes, we release plastic particles into our waters
The way our clothing is produced is by spinning together tiny fibres to create yarn. This yarn is then knitted or weaved together to create fabrics. These fabrics can then be treated with chemicals and dyes for their desired use and are cut and sown into desired shapes, such as a t-shirt or a pair of trousers.
During wearing and washing of these clothes, the tiny fibres embedded within the fabric or on the surface of the clothing become loose, break off, and are released into our environment. These are called microfibres.
This could be less of an issue if our clothes were predominantly made from natural materials such as cotton and wool, but over 60% of our clothes today are already made from plastic such as polyester, acrylic, nylon, elastane.
For context, we release about ~700,000 microfibres in a single clothes wash. Now think about all the washing machines on spin each week, across the world. That is roughly ~9.4million tonnes of plastic bits heading down the drain in our washing wastewater, every 7 days, already. This issue is so extensive that microplastics created by our clothing is the largest contributor of microplastic pollution in our oceans.
Even plastic textiles that are “infinitely recyclable” shed microfibres every time they are washed. And who doesn’t want to wash their clothes once in a while?!
It’s clear that we’ve already got enough microfibres in our ecosystems, without adding a whole new generation of recycled ocean plastic clothes to the mix...
- These plastic particles end up back into water, including in the stuff we drink…
These tiny microplastics are already so prevalent in our waters and in our food chain, and have been detected throughout our bodies. We mostly absorb plastic pollution through our water supply and via our food; plastic pollution which comes from our life on land entering our water ecosystems.
Whilst the effects on human health are not 100% confirmed, it’s obvious that having plastic in our major organs and in the placentas of unborn children makes us a bit squeamish – this is all clearly very unnatural. Microplastics have been shown to carry chemical substances and to pick up bacterias which act as endocrine disruptors, meaning they can throw off the delicate balance of hormones circulating in the bodies of animals and fish that ingest them.
Our Crew has previously pulled together some research on microfibres and found that, already, microfibres are so prevalent in our environment that they have been found in falling rain and in 83% of drinking water. Microplastics are also already in our food, from mussels and shrimps all the way to our fruit and vegetables.
- Billions are spent each year removing plastics from our seas…
…yet creating more clothes from plastic is adding more microfibres back into our waters, making efforts more net-neutral than otherwise intended.
That’s a bit heart-breaking.
- More clothes made out of plastic = more plastics in our waters
Researchers have noticed that clothing made from recycled plastics actually shed these harmful microfibres at rates over double that of clothing made from virgin materials. And while we see the environmental positives of recycling plastic, recycling plastic into clothing is not a venture we want to get behind.
The common plastic water bottle (made out of PET) is one the few plastic products that is part of an established recycling loop where they can be efficiently recycled up to ten times. It has been warned that converting these plastic bottles to clothing actually accelerates the path of plastic bottles to landfill, as clothing isn't widely recyclable.
Clothing companies have also been criticised for labelling clothing as ‘environmentally friendly’ or ‘sustainable’ when the only credential they are claiming to have is a small percentage of recycled fibres within their garment.
Using recycled materials is not a magic bullet that clothing companies can hide behind to distract from the myriad of other opportunities that face our global garment industry: poor labour conditions for garment workers, high emissions and energy intensive processes within textile mills. The marketing of these products with buzzwords such as ‘sustainable’ and ‘recycled’ has also raised concern that in believing these products are better for our environment, we will carry on over-consuming these, continuing to release plastic pollution in our oceans, alongside.
More clothes made out plastic = more plastic in our waters.
Why filters aren't the ultimate solution.
Filters can be a good stop gap to prevent microplastics from being released into our waters in the short term. Bilge and washing machine filter production is on the up for the very reason that awareness of microfibres is greater than it ever has been. However, these filters are either incinerated, releasing a host of chemical nanoparticles into our air (not good for our lungs), or are buried in landfill. So *technically*, the plastic substances and other nasties caught in the filters are put back into our environment one way or another.
Not ideal, right?
So, what is the solution?
Let's wear and care for what we already own. The most sustainable garments are the ones we already have. Instead of throwing out clothing with holes in it, or clothes that no longer fit, we can turn to mending clothing and swapping or selling old clothing.
However, we know that sometimes we need to buy clothes. So what should we look for? The best thing we can do is to wear clothes made out of organic fair trade, natural fibres and try and stay away from items made from recycled plastic, or any plastic for that matter.
Organic cotton, for example, is better for the producers and for the ecosystem in which it is grown, limiting all chemical interference from insecticides and pesticides. Cotton is a thirsty crop, so its best grown in and sourced from regions and projects in moist, naturally irrigated, often monsoon-sustained regions such as Northern India, to limit the amount man-handling and additives.
There are also some great brands producing clothes made from recycled fabric offcuts and recycled cotton – all natural and better for our seas, and for us.
One major barrier for everyone switching over to organic, fair-trade and natural fibred clothing is often the increased price compared to clothing made out of fossil fuels.
Over the last decade, inflation has caused almost every product to increase in price, except for clothing. The price of clothing, especially synthetic clothing, has decreased. But sadly, that means the people making the garments and the planet are paying the price.
Plastic can be fantastic, if put to long-term use.
Recycled plastic, and plastic in general, is an incredible material. It is durable and resilient making it great for many products, apart from ones that will end up in our oceans and stay there for decades, if not centuries. It’s therefore really important that we try to use plastic for longer-term projects and limit overproduction and overconsumption, and the possibility of tiny polluting particulate matter heading into our waters.
We had a hunt around and found some ways in which recycled plastic is already being put to use, for long-term projects, from helping build homes for refugees to building our marina pontoons, all keeping plastic out of our seas and water supply for the longer term.
Plastic can be fantastic, if we put it to long-term use away from our waters, such as for:
- Building low income housing and also refugee shelters from recycled plastic panelling
- Recycled plastic brickwork for affordable homes and structures
- Planking (such as pontoons)
Let’s aim to keep plastic out of our ocean, for good.
Read more by Clean Sailors, here:
What we mean when we say: Microplastics