Synthetic fibers could be a wonderful thing. Their production requires far less water than cotton and they don’t require toxic pesticides to grow. But does that make them environmentally friendly? Sadly not.
The expansion of fast fashion wouldn’t be possible without polyester. Relatively cheap and easily available, polyester is now used in about 60% of our clothes. But, if we take into account the fossil fuels used in its production, CO2 emissions for polyester clothing are nearly three times higher than for cotton! Our reliance on polyester is one of the reasons why the fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world; both in terms of its emissions-heavy production and the non-biodegradable waste it leaves behind.
Fast Fashion infographic © Greenpeace
One piece of clothing can release 700,000 fibers in a single wash
Once our clothes reach a washing machine, the synthetic fabrics release tiny strands: so-called microfibers. These are essentially microscopic pieces of plastic, just like the microbeads you find in cosmetics.
Every time you run your washing machine, hundreds of thousands of microfibers are flushed down the drain. Many reach beaches and oceans where they can remain for hundreds of years.
Swallowed by fish and other sealife, microplastic travels up the food chain, where they end up on our plates.
30% of ocean plastic pollution could come from microplastics
According to a new IUCN report, microplastics could be causing even more of a problem than we thought. Between 15% to 31% of marine plastic pollution could be from tiny particles released by household and industrial products, rather than larger plastic items that degrade once they reach the sea.
The IUCN calculates that 35% of this microplastic pollution comes from washing synthetic textiles. Europe and Central Asia alone dump the equivalent of 54 plastic bags worth of microplastics per person per week into the oceans.
So what can we do?
It’s unrealistic to think that we can get rid of synthetic fibers altogether. Their use is too widespread and the sheer volume of clothing that we produce simply can’t be manufactured using only cotton and other natural fibers. And while the manufacturing industry is developing solutions; like more efficient filters for washing machines, they don’t yet tackle the problem.
We need to radically rethink the way we manufacture and use what we wear. Clothes should be produced without polluting the environment. They should be designed with durability in mind, so that they can be recycled only after many years of use. As consumers we have a big part to play in preventing microfibers from polluting the oceans, simply by buying less. If we reduce consumption, we reduce waste. It starts with being more conscious of the issue, and the rest should be simple.
Less is more
Rethinking our buying patterns is possible. We already shop too much and wear our clothes too little. A 2015 survey by Greenpeace Germany revealed that about 40% of our clothes are rarely or never worn [in German]. We can change that. We can buy secondhand or vintage, make use of clothing exchanges online and within local communities, or up-cycle our existing clothes. Clothing doesn’t have to be brand-new to be fashionable.
Visit Story of Stuff to find out more about microfibers and what you can do to help, and please share the video and spread the word!
Dr. Kirsten Brodde is the Detox my Fashion Global Project Lead at Greenpeace Germany.
For additional information, check out our microfibers explainer video:
Together we can create a new normal that leaves single-use products behind.
How does buying less help surely it doesn't reduce the need to wash them?
vendor of nature extract
I enjoy looking through your websites. Thanks a lot!
Hello, My name is Maria. What do you can recommend to me to use as fabric for cleaning towels? If I have to use choose between cotton and microfiber what is better option? Are the blue wipes good for the enviroment
you guys are a great website,i would recomend you to friends!
Hi. Having learned about the microfibre pollution from washing synthetic clothing, where practical, I now try to only buy new clothing with little or no synthetic material. However, I'm in a quandary about what to do with any old clothing that contains synthetics. In the past, I would have donated these to charity but by doing that they would continue to be washed and continue to pollute our waters. Sending them to recycling facilities poses the same issue. Does anyone have any guidance on how to dispose of synthetic garments in a way that avoids any future microfibre pollution? Might incineration be the answer?!
I've tried to stay with cotton for many years. Even cotton is produced in fields that are heavily sprayed with pesticides. Tough to find organic cotton. I've supported Greenpeace for decades and think that you do valuable work. I come to the conclusion though, after sixty years that not much has changed. I now believe that we are doomed as a species. The destruction of our home plant has been accelerating at an alarming rate and will continue for PROFIT. This old hippie is worn out!
It looks like there's a mistake in the statistics of this report. It is claimed that: "Europe and Central Asia alone dump the equivalent of 54 plastic bags worth of microplastics per person per week into the oceans." When you check the report cited, it becomes clear that this is misquoting the original report, which estimates 54 plastic bags worth microplastics per person per year into the oceans.' The report cited, moreover, makes it clear that this is estimating 5 grams per carrier bag, so around 270g per per person per year of microplastics. It's still a lot but eye-catching statistics that turn out to be exaggerations don't lend credibility to desperately needed arguments.
It’s highly frustrating that for the average woman buying clothing the choices are increasingly being limited to these synthetic fabrics - including knitted items which are now predominantly made from acrylic (another plastic) and shoes (made from pleather). If we are not going to put the onus on the clothing industry to use natural fibres (or at least the much cheaper man-made natural fibres such as viscose and rayon) surely we have the scientists who can design some sort of universal filter to all washing machines that stop these micro plastics exiting into the wastewater?
Hi, I was wandering about your view on microfibre and ceaning. Is it better for the invirontment in totatl to clean the house with a (good quality?) microfibre cloth that last for years and water only? Or it is it better to choose a natural cloth in hemp og cotton and som kind of natural soap (that often comes in a plastic bottle)? Or are we all fooled to tink that we need any of this stuff... Is water and a cotton cloth all we need really??
Sadly; I was not aware of the damage polyester and other microfibers cause. I will now be more conscious of the clothing I buy and will buy less. It will be challenging to convince others but I will circulate the message
Our rivers and streams are inundated with millions of storm drain's that relieve society, industry, and government of every foul matter. Used condoms, tampons, medical waste, dirty diapers, bottles, and bags. All this matter breaks down and absorbs PCB's which is being ingested by phytoplankton. Phytoplankton is the beginning of the food chain and creates most of our oxygen and is in a 40% decline. As phytoplankton goes we go. This issue is imminent and irreversible.
As the researcher who first discovered this issue I find it offensive that there is no mention or reference to my work. Given that Nike and Patagonia both told me that they would not fund research because they were trying to remove chemicals from clothing that Greenpeace identified as toxic. Now they just simply replace old chemicals with lots of evidence of toxicity with new chemicals not identified as toxic yet. Thus green chemistry approach is problematic, companies are not engaging with rigorous research to mitigate thus problem and it is because of Greenpeace.
Hi Mark, ive worked in the fashion industry for a number of years and always found the topic of micro fibres fascinating and at the same time alarming. i would also like to write and share an article on this topic with my current employer and try and reach colleagues and clients around the world to raise awareness, maybe i can use some of your industry leading research if you dont mind?
Dear Mark Browne, we are well aware of your groundbreaking work, it is e.g. quoted here; https://www.greenpeace.de/sites/www.greenpeace.de/files/i03971e_gp_flyer_mikrofaser_7_17.pdf Unfortunately companies are currently focusing on easy techno fixes like washing bags - please get in touch with me to get an update. Best, Kirsten Brodde, project lead Detox my fashion
Is it better to wear and wash the athletic wear I have or is it better to retire my athletic wear and buy hemp or 100 percent cotton. Please advise.
Where does the 700,000 figure come from? Is it possible to get a link to that study? Thanks
Hi Alice. Here is the link for you https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/sep/27/washing-clothes-releases-water-polluting-fibres-study-finds
Thanks for this but this link is to a news article which also does not link to the original study...