Our Laundry is Loaded

Every time we do laundry our clothes are polluting the ocean.

I have always opted to spend that bit more to buy eco-friendly detergents, but until recently I never knew that tiny clothing fibres could be the biggest source of plastic in our oceans.

In 2011 following months of research, ecologist Mark Browne presented a paper on his examination of sediment along shorelines all around the world. He found tiny synthetic microfibres everywhere. In fact, 85% of the human-made material found on the shoreline were microfibres, and they matched materials used in clothing, such as nylon and acrylic.

Browne sampled wastewater from domestic washing machines and estimated that approximately 1,900 fibres can be rinsed off a single synthetic garment in an individual wash. When you multiply that figure by the number of pieces of clothing made from synthetic fabrics that get washed every single day, it adds up to a huge amount of plastic microfibres entering our oceans each year.

Household washing machines are a major source of “microplastic” pollution, with bits of polyester and acrylic (smaller than the head of a pin), now detected on ocean shorelines worldwide.             Credit: © Alexandr Denisenko / Fotolia

In a bid to reduce the migration of toxic fibres into water systems Browne has pitched the creation of working parties between scientists and textile industry representatives for the development of non-shedding synthetic materials. To date he has had no response from major leaders in outdoor apparel, such as Patagonia and Nike, who are big suppliers of synthetic fabrics.

Given the difficulty in getting rid of synthetic fibres, and the huge number of contributing textile manufactures, not just in the clothing industry but also in carpet and upholstery, what can we as consumers do? We can try where possible to purchase and wear natural clothing made of natural fibres, such as hemp, but interestingly synthetic fibres can have smaller water and energy footprint than some natural fabrics. One solution being promoted by Browne is to develop better filters for our washing machines. Canadian airplane engine mechanic turned entrepreneur, Blair Jollimore, has done just this, creating a home business that has sold more than 1,000 filters globally. Jollimore aims to pitch his product to appliance makers.

While washing machine filters seem like a necessary step, how long will it take for the use of these filters to become widespread and have an impact, particularly given how infrequently we purchase new machines. On discussing the issue of microfibre plastic pollution with Paul Sharp of the Two Hand Project, he raised the point that while filters should be explored, they should not be used as an excuse for the textile industry to keep choosing polluting synthetic fibres. Sharp also fears that washing machine filters would create a new toxic waste stream relying on consumers to dispose of and empty their filters.

This got me thinking about the benefit of reusing existing natural fabrics and clothing items. Op-shopping has been a bit of a fad at times, but how many of us actually op-shop with a conscious view of reusing or upcycling.

Alex van Os, one half of the Careel Bay Honey Co duo (see earlier blog post with Joel’s interview) is a local doing just this. As a stylist working for major TV programs and commercials, dressing celebrities such as Ricky Martin, she is constantly thinking about fashion. Alex has her own blog and Instagram page “op shop to runway” where she is hoping to encourage people to buy second hand clothes and break the cycle of needing something “new.”

Northern Beaches op shopping hero, Alex van Os of @op_shop_to_runway

“Everyone is a consumer now, it is all about getting something fast and new. There are no true seasons anymore. Stores are getting deliveries every week because there is a demand for it. Clothes are getting pumped out. Working conditions and pay are poor and the textile industry is a huge contributor to toxic waste in our oceans… Here in Australia, we are so fortunate. But it comes at a cost to third world countries who are working overtime for pittance to keep up with our market demands. Not to mention the huge wastage of items that do not sell.”

Alex feels that so many people overlook op shops, that there is still a stigma attached to second hand clothes. She stresses that people rarely think about the terms and conditions that an item of clothing was made in. We overlook this for a bargain price. We underestimate the time, energy and resources that go into producing clothes and the resultant impact on humans and the environment.

While Alex admits that she loves searching for that piece of treasure in the op shop stores, as the face and ambassador for the Australian Red Cross op shops, she wants to show people that you can find good basic clothing items in the stores for the whole family and still keep up with current trends. Alex regularly challenges herself to not buy anything new for a period of time. She is particularly conscious about buying things second hand from an op shop, off eBay or Gumtree when they are for shorter term use, such as walking boots for a one off holiday.

“The future of op shops has to change, because if you want a cheap tee shirt you can get a cheaper one at one of the chain store these days. We need to educate people that at the op shop you may be able to get a second hand piece that is not only better quality, but that you are then reusing an item that is already out there rather than fuelling fast fashion.” And given that the textile industry is responsible for devastating plastic pollution in our oceans, there is even more cause to shop second hand.

As the human population grows and people wash and use more synthetic textiles, contamination of habitats and animals by microplastic is likely to increase.

Take home tips:

  • Get as many wears out of a piece of clothing as possible prior to putting it through the washing machine.
  • Keep your eyes peeled for washing machine filters to hit the market and/or explore purchasing options with creative home businesses like Blair Jollimore’s.
  • Cut up clothing that is at the end of its life span into rags and soft wash cloths.
  • Try and reuse/upcycle Use op shop stores, as Alex recommends, be prepared to browse or have an idea of what you are after and check regularly. Sell old clothes through garage sales – team up with friends. Search for specific second hand items on gumtree and eBay.
  • Where possible wear and reuse clothing of natural fibres
  • Challenge the textile industry to develop non-shedding textiles and replace plastic with a natural sustainable fibre such as hemp

For more inspiration you can follow Alex van Os @op_shop_to_runway