Which Everyday Fabrics Contain Plastic?

Did you know most tea bags and chewing gum contain plastic? So to do many of the clothes we wear. And it’s not just because of their zips, poppers and buttons; the fabric can contain plastic too. In this article we explore which everyday fabrics contain plastic, how this plastic ends up in the sea, and how you can reduce the impact of 'plastic fabric' at home.

Why do so many clothes contain plastic? 

But first, why do so many clothes contain plastic? There are two different types of fabric fibres: 1) natural fibres, which are made from plants and animals and 2) synthetic fibres, which are made artificially. Over 60% of all clothing is made from synthetic fibres, such as polyester, nylon and acrylic - and they all contain plastic. 

  • Polyester is a popular synthetic material, as it’s cheap and easy to produce, durable and wrinkle-resistant. However, it’s made from petroleum-based polymers, which are a form of plastic. 
  • Nylon is often used for swimwear, sportswear and underwear, as it’s known for its strength and elasticity. It’s derived from polyamide monomers, which are extracted from petroleum, making it another type of plastic fabric.
  • Acrylic is often used as a wool substitute, as it’s soft, warm and cheap to produce. Acrylic is made from acrylonitrile, which is also derived from petroleum, making it yet another type of plastic fabric.

Does it matter if our clothes contain plastic? 

The plastic in our clothing can have a negative impact on the environment. Here's why:

  • The plastic in our clothes can end up in the sea, affecting marine life: When we wash synthetic fibres, tiny plastic particles called microplastics are released into the washing machine. These microplastics are too small to be filtered - even by standard wastewater treatment plants - meaning they end up in our rivers and seas. Once in the water they can travel a significant distance before being ingested.
According to Science Direct, an estimated 700,000 fibres could be released from an average 6 kg wash load of acrylic fabric. That’s a lot!
  • The plastic in our clothes is non-biodegradable: Plastic-based fabrics are non biodegradable, and don’t therefore break down over time. This means, when they eventually end up in landfill, the plastic in the clothing will remain present for hundreds of years, resulting in land pollution and an increased risk of the plastic being ingested by wildlife.  
    • The plastic in our clothes is dependent on petroleum: Synthetic fibres are dependent on petroleum-based chemicals. Petroleum is a non-renewable fossil fuel, and the process of extracting and using it has a significant environmental impact.

        What can you do to reduce the impact of plastic in your clothing? 

        Here are 5 tips on how you can reduce the impact of plastic fabric on the environment:

        • Opt for natural fibres: Where possible opt for clothes made from natural fibres, such as organic cotton, bamboo, wool, hemp and linen. These fabrics are biodegradable and have a lower environmental impact than a synthetic alternative. 
        • Make an informed choice when buying your clothes: According to a Ducky Zebra survey less than 15% of people check the fabric composition of their clothes before they buy them. We get it. Price, style and convenience are often enough to influence a purchase. But, if possible, check the wash care label (or website) before buying. Both the label and website will include the details of the fabric composition - allowing you to see whether the fibres are natural or not. Some clothes (like ours at Ducky Zebra) may have eco-friendly certifications, such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which shows that the clothes have met certain environmental standards.
        • Try sustainable alternatives: Have you ever worn a raincoat made from plastic bottles? Or swimwear made from old fish netting? While these fibres are still synthetic they’ve been made from recycled plastic waste, and are therefore helping to offer an innovative and more sustainable option.
        • Buy 2nd hand or try rental: We know hand-me-downs and second hand clothes are popular amongst parents and carers. It's a great way to reduce our environmental impact (while saving money too). Similarly, renting kids’ clothes can also help to reduce our impact, save money and increase the life-cycle of our clothes. We’ve partnered with Borrothelittleloop and My Little Wardrobe so you can now rent a selection of our Ducky Zebra clothes in the UK and Ireland.
        • Wash clothes less frequently and at a lower temperature: It sounds obvious, but washing clothes less frequently helps to reduce the amount of micro-plastics that are shed. Using a lower temperature setting can also help to reduce the shedding. Plus there are microfibre-catching bags, such as Guppyfriend, which act as a microplastic filter, helping to prevent the microplastics from entering the wastewater. Interestingly a parliamentary bill is currently under discussion in the UK, which would require manufacturers to fit microplastic-catching filters to all new domestic and commercial washing machines. If this is approved it would be a big win! 
        Do you have any other tips on how we can reduce the impact of plastic-fabric? If so, we’d love to hear from you!

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