Synthetic clothing fibers in our oceans

12 August 2015
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Last year I read an article that made my heart sink. It was about synthetic clothing fibers in our oceans. Months before I had only just reached my first year of living plastic free and I was feeling pretty good.

The article said:
85% of the human-made material found on the shoreline were microfibers, and matched the types of material, such as nylon and acrylic, used in clothing.

I closed the article with dread. Here was yet another plastic that was doing harm and frankly I did not know how to write about it let alone deal with it.

Since that article I have halved my wardrobe, taking boxes of clothing and shoes to charity stores. Since that article only clothes made of natural fibers have been making their way into my wardrobe BUT I still have a synthetic clothes made of nylon and polyester that I wear each week. Of which up too 1,900 fibers can be rinsed off my clothing and into the water during a wash.

Last week a news outlet published a similar story here and I can only imagine this issue gaining more traction.

Even when I tell people that I don't buy plastic because I try to live plastic free, my statement is met with questions about the thread in my clothes. I agree awkwardly that is an issue I am trying to figure out. Banning synthetic fibers is the obvious step but not the easiest.

Sure I could take the polyester and nylon clothes of mine to the local charity stores and go completely natural so that when people do ask about plastic fibers in my clothes I can go "Ha, but it's natural"...but am I just putting my clothes back into the cycle where they will be bought, worn and washed by another person?

And what happens if everyone started doing this too - what do we do with all these synthetic clothing that we can't use? Insulation? Incinerate? Can they even be recycled into something else that won't get into our oceans?

Am I better off keeping them, boxing it up in my attic, so someone else does not continue to send plastic fibers out into the world?


  1. This is such a hard dilemma, and though I don't like to "give up" on things, this one I have given up on. At least in terms of avoiding it in my clothes. Also because I like my nylon tights and the polyester in my pants that make them bike friendly...
    I wish that part of the solution could lie with the washing machine companies to develop a better filter. I think this would be by far the best solution... but do not know how realistic it is.

    1. It is a tricky one to figure out. I like the elastane in my tights too. A band aid solution would be the updated filters in washing machines. I wonder if we could attach something on them without having to go buy new ones?

  2. Ooh, this is tricky.

    I reckon first off, you need to give yourself a break and accept that there is no perfect solution for your existing clothing. It's a sunk 'cost' now. You're aware and know better going forward before acquiring more, but now you just need to weigh up the best option taking everything into account (benefits of donation, vs throwing away) and make a judgment call.

    I get frustrated when people myopically claim one thing is better than another. Another blogger I know proclaimed that glass containers were better on the basis that plastics create pollution and use energy during their manufacture. And manufacturing glass doesn't do the same thing?? Yes, the end result is a superior product for many reasons, but to pretend that parts of the full value chain don't exist is ridiculous.

    1. Hey Andy, you are right. It can be so easy to get consumed by so much of getting things "right" that you can end up being in a vacuum. I still use plastic, to an extent,because giving it away is just going to potentially end up in landfill anyway. If anything my life has become about acquiring less so that I encourage less manufacturing. Everything creates pollution of some kind. I guess i am still trying to figure it all out!

  3. Anonymous8/14/2015

    It's a tough issue, isn't it! I'm continuing to wear my existing synthetic clothing - ditching it all at once is far too drastic and what would I do with it anyway? - but I do try to choose natural/biodegradable fibres when I purchase new (or new to me) clothes.

    As much as I wish we could phase out synthetic clothes globally, I think the best mid-term solution is developing better filters for washing machines and wastewater treatment plants. And then waiting, decades or centuries, for all the plastic fibres we've already sent into the ocean to slowly get worked out of the system...

    1. I agree with the filter idea. I bet there would be a kickstarter goupies that would fund that idea :) I guess we can only do the best we can with what we have got. And being aware is powerful too.

  4. A thought as to what to do with your existing clothing - perhaps make it into things that don't need to be washed often? eg mattress pads for your dog's bed (with a washable cover), a rag rug for the kitchen or laundry floor. The washing machine filter is a good idea. I have to admit this is not an issue I knew existed. Most of my clothing is 100% natural fibre, but of course knickers etc...have elastane in them and some things a small percentage of nylon.

    And I agree with Andycake who says we need to give ourselves a break. When we know better, we can do better. We can't always get it 100% right, but if more of us make a good effort then we are heading in the right direction. I seem to be meeting more people all the time who are becoming aware and making changes :-)


    1. Ah Madeline, you always think of great ideas. A rag rug would be a great idea, even used as a mat for homeless people. My brain is ticking over with ideas now...

    2. Sorry, I misspelt your name! Missed an e.


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