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Our Fiber-Filled Future Future

The negative impacts of single-use and micro plastics are no longer a secret, and marine conservation communities are coming together around the world to combat and control the damage. Fingers point at water bottles, straws, and other commonly used items as main offenders, and as a result many of us are gravitating towards alternatives or choosing to go without - but what if we told you that the clothes you wore hiking could be part of problem?

In an effort to mass produce garments with specific qualities at a cheaper cost, a range of synthetic fibres have been introduced and become commonplace in the last 70 years. Synthetic textiles are made from inorganic products such as crude oil and plastics, or blends of organic sources and chemicals. The intention was to mimic the qualities of natural fibres and enhance them for long-term use. Initially, they were seen as superior due to their durability and specific properties making them more absorbent, quick drying and easier to dye. Unfortunately, much of this is achieved by undergoing complex processing procedures at the expense of the environment.

Many of the fabrics we will be discussing (nylon, rayon and polyester) were introduced around the second world war by Du Pont to meet the needs of a growing population. Since then, the demand for polyester has surpassed those of wool, cotton and other fibres, making it the single most used textile in the world. It is expected that, by 2030, synthetics will account for 75% of global fibre production – 107 million tons.

Why is this a problem?

Because they are made from plastic and oil byproducts, synthetic garments are non-biodegradable. They take over 30 years just to start decomposing and centuries to fully degrade as they are often coated in chemicals and dyes from manufacturing. Synthetic material undergoes significant processing as a result of their unique compositions:

  • Synthetic dyes are required for synthetic fabrics as they do not absorb natural dyes well - or sometimes at all
  • Formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, is often used on garments and bedding to prevent stains, wrinkles and static
  • Chlorine bleaching is a common way to disinfect and whiten material and feminine hygiene products, during this process dioxin (another carcinogenic) is released that accumulates in fat cells throughout our entire life
  • Traditional detergents don’t clean synthetics, instead they coat them and form a residue, meaning heavy detergents are needed for unnatural materials
  • Many fabrics are treated with VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) multiple times throughout manufacturing, and our clothing can continue to give off those gases as we wear them
  • Chemical fabric softeners containing chemicals such as acetate and chloroform are commonly used in the final stages of production and in most cases are still present when we purchase our clothing

These additives contain heavy metals that are toxic to the human body and threaten surrounding ecosystems. Not only are they a concern for consumers, but also those involved in production, as they are exposed to these substances in large quantities on a regular basis. Many repercussions of synthetic material plants are felt by the environment as well. It is long known that the fashion industry is a large contributor to water and air pollution as a result of toxins released in runoff water and emissions, but we are only beginning to see the full extent of the damage done.

Synthetic textiles are proving to have a longer life than first expected and are showing up in places they aren’t wanted in the form of microfibers. Microfibres are a type of microplastic that shed from fabrics during normal use and laundering. All textiles produce microfibers, but synthetic fibres are of particular concern due to their plastic properties and processing discussed earlier. In addition to the already-present toxins in synthetic microfibers, they also bond to chemical pollutants in the environment, causing distress since they’ve been found in bottled and tap water, beer, market fish and salt, with research indicating they could also be settling in our lungs.

Studies done by professors and graduates from the University of Plymouth have furthered our knowledge of causation in regards to the increasing presence of microfibres today. Initially, they observed an increase in fibrous synthetic material in surface water samples taken throughout time that mirror the increasing production rates since the 1970s. As they continued their research to find possible sources, they found fibres were bypassing filters in wastewater disposal sites and being released into rivers, lakes and oceans.

Following these results, the Rozalia Project, a non-profit ocean protection group, conducted another study and reported relatively consistent fiber samples throughout rural and suburban areas.  In some cases, microfibers actually spiked near popular trailheads, leading them to consider the many ways fibers can spread. It is believed that synthetic fabrics sought after in outdoor gear and athletic wear for their breathability and durability shed fibers as hikers go along the trail. Our clothing sheds as we wear it, and the amount can increase based on how many times it’s been washed and what materials it’s been made from. For example, a polyester fleece jacket can shed 1’900 – 250’000 fibers each time it is cleaned.

So, who are the main offenders?

Polyester is made from fossil fuels and other chemicals to form a plastic that, when heated, stretches to over five times its length to make up a yarn that is then knitted or woven into a fabric. The extraction of such non-renewable resources contributes to the destruction of habitats in the early stages, and the fabric returns to reek havoc again at the end of its life during its extensive decomposition. You’ll find your body instinctively steers away from polyester, especially in the summer months, due to its lack of breathability and skin irritations that can result from wearing a man-made toxin.

Acrylic fabrics like acrylic wool are made using acrylonitrile, also known as vinyl cyanide. This key ingredient is a known carcinogen that targets the central nervous system. It can enter our bodies through direct contact, inhalation and ingestion and studies have found that women working in these textiles plants are 7 times as likely to develop breast cancer.

Nylon gained momentum by replacing silk in the 1930s. It is made using benzene and hydrogen cyanide gas in a process that melts down nylon chips to form tiny threads that make up a fabric when woven together. Due to its delicate structure, permanent chemical finishes are often applied to strengthen and prolong its use. Such agents are harmful when applied and could be just as harmful when released in the environment throughout its life. Besides clothing, you can find nylon in luggage, toothbrushes and carpeting, to name a few.

Rayon too was produced as an alternative to silk. Although it is derived from natural sources of cellulose in recycled wood pulp, rayon is considered artificial as it undergoes heavy processing before it can be utilized. With the exception of high tenacity rayon used in industry, the fabric commonly found in garments and drapery ages at a quicker rate than most others, showing discolouration and acquiring a rough texture when worn often. In order to combat this, it is treated with chemicals like caustic soda, ammonia, acetone and sulphuric acid.

Spandex is a polyurethane most commonly used in sports apparel, bathing suits, wetsuits, and surgical compression garments due to its lightweight, elastic, moisture wicking properties – but they come at a cost. There are many different components that make up these fibers, including prepolymers, stabilizers and colourants. At its prime, spandex can expand up to 600% and retain its form, but after considerable use it begins to lose its viscosity and it is around this time that most fibers are shed. It is likely that this material is the largest contributor to the samples taken near popular trails.

Microfiber and Microfleece fabrics are made from polyester, nylon and rayon, combining all 3 of DuPont’s production patents into one. These materials are often deterring to the touch as their split ends collect dust and bacteria. It is commonly used in pajamas, blankets and cloths and should be avoided for the same reasons as its counterparts.

Any fabrics that claim to be wrinkle, stain, static or moth resistant have more than likely been treated with perfluorinated chemicals that can harm life forms and their environment when the material is has been applied to is manufactured, sheds and (very slowly) decomposes. These can include otherwise natural fabrics as well.

Most synthetic fabrics can be recognized simply by their name, none of the materials we just discussed sound remotely like any plant or natural resource available to us today. There are many more alternatives in production that we didn’t go in-depth about here as they aren’t commonly found in the garments referred to earlier, they include materials such as: acetate, lastex, orlon, Kevlar,

It is more than likely that you can find these materials in your closet right now with little effort, and it can be a daunting and costly task to upheave them all in one go. The goal isn’t to spend all your time and energy into undoing past wrongs, but to use this information to positively influence the decisions you make in the future. Here are some natural fabrics to look out for:

  • Cotton
  • Wool
  • Hemp
  • Linen
  • Silk
  • Cashmere

These fibers are produced by plants and animals, and while bamboo falls under that category as well, it requires a significant amount of chemicals to soften it for use in clothing. It should be said that natural fabrics can also be processed or treated to some extent, but they still prevail as a lower-impact alternative and will naturally degrade quicker than synthetics. Cotton, for instance, consumes a significant amount of water and land during its growth, and many cultivators use pesticides on crops, but it biodegrades in a reasonable amount of time and can be reused, requiring 97% less energy than used to manufacture new material. There are many factors to consider, but seemingly small decisions like what shirt to buy influences the world around us in ways we may never have thought.

The best way to embrace the transition from synthetic to organic fabrics is to simply work it into your regular way of life. As your clothing wears out, choose to replace them with natural alternatives. When you can, choose organic clothing, and – perhaps the biggest hurdle for some – get realistic about the value of your clothing. High quality European garments might seem overpriced but, in most cases, you are getting what you pay for. These garments are likely to last for years, are often timeless in style - and you are paying for the honest days’ work that went into producing them. The fast fashion industry is built on the consumerist mindset of quantity over quality and it is going to cost much more in the long run than the price of that organic hemp jacket.

originally published by Intengine in 2018


Environment & Climate, Fashion & Clothing, Sustainability