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Biology, Chemistry, Sustainability, Uncategorized

No straight answer

A few weeks ago I wrote two posts on synthetic versus cotton clothing and synthetic versus cotton wound dressings. Those came out quite squarely on the side of the synthetics. But nothing in life is ever that simple. The other side of the discussion are the environmental and social impacts of cotton versus synthetic clothing and here I have come to one conclusion: the only good choice is to cut down on how much we purchase and extend the life of the items we have.

Cotton has high environmental costs. For example, it is one of the most pesticide heavy crops in the US. Synthetic fibres, well they are made from petroleum products. Then we have the waste components. There is so much clothing being donated to thrift stores that they can’t resell it all. They end up reselling to textile recyclers and sending clothing oversees to resale markets in places like Africa. Where this foreign clothing ends up replacing the items that could have been made by local people, which would have stimulated the local economy. Oh, and because women in North America tend to buy, and therefore, get rid of more clothing, men have to pay significantly more for this recycled globalized clothing.

This doesn’t even begin to consider the notoriously poor working conditions in clothing factories.

Then, you have to consider the relatively recent news that synthetic clothing is broken down in the washing machine (not surprising) but that microbeads from this clothing is causing significant pollution to the Earth’s water. Organisms end up consuming the microbeads resulting in physical harm and potential transfer of chemicals. The microbeads come from several sources, they have even been used as a replacement for natural abrasives in some products such as exfoliating creams. So, how much does washing synthetic clothing release? Well, it depends on a few factors like detergent (eco-friendly “might” be better, fabric softener (increases the release of microbeads), and type of fabric (polyester-cotton blend released the least, acrylic released the most, with polyester in the middle). But, based on a load of 6 kg, there could be more than 700,000 fibres released. Many wastewater treatment plants will catch a significant number of these fibres; however, even a small number escaping per litre can quickly have a negative impact when you think about the volume of water that is treated in the average city (Napper & Thompson, 2016).

Oh, and lest I forget to mention the impact of processing such as dyeing clothing which sends up to 200,000 tons of dyes, most of which will not be caught by waste water treatment processes, into the environment where the persist over the long term because of the very characteristics that make them valuable as clothing dyes such as resistance to light, temperature, water, detergents, etc. Environmental regulations do generally require that the colour itself is removed before the discharge makes it way to the natural environment (Cheque et al, 2013).

There are efforts to improve sustainability in the clothing industry through organically grown fibres, post-consumer recycled materials, and manufacturing standards but that doesn’t have any impact on the heavy environmental cost of consumers cleaning the clothes while they do own them.

Luz Claudio (2007), from whose article I took most of the facts above, unless otherwise noted, offers the following tips for consumers:

  • purchase fewer and more durable items
  • recycle garments as used clothing or as other products like cleaning rags
  • use detergents that work at lower temperatures

I would add:

  • hang clothes to dry when possible
  • patch or repair clothes when possible
  • get versatile items that can be worn in a wider range of settings and outfits – if that shirt only goes with one pair of pants it might not be the best choice
  • look for manufacturers and retailers who, if nothing else, are open about their sourcing/manufacturing practices, and preferably demonstrate environmentally and socially responsible approaches

There is no clear answer, but we do need to wear clothes, so how do we make the best of a challenging and confusing system?

Chequer, F. M. D., de Oliveira, G. A. R., Ferraz, E. R. A., Cardosa, J. C., Zanoni, M. V., B., & de Oliveira, D. P. (2013). Textile Dyes: Dyeing Process and Environmental Impact. In M. Gunay (ed.) Eco-Friendly Textile Dyeing and Finishing. InTech, DOI: 10.5772/53659. Available from: https://www.intechopen.com/books/eco-friendly-textile-dyeing-and-finishing/textile-dyes-dyeing-process-and-environmental-impact

Claudio, L. (2007). Waste couture: Environmental impact of the clothing industry. Environmental Health Perspectives, 115(9), A448-A454.

Napper, I. E. & Thompson, R. C. (2016). Release of synthetic microplastic plastic fibres from domestic washing machines: Effects of fabric type and washing conditions. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 112(1-2), 39-45. DOI: 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2016.09.025

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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