Plastic Fashion

How wearing synthetic clothes influences your health and the environment

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Did you ever take into consideration that you are probably wearing plastic right now? When we talk about plastic threatening our environment and health, plastic textiles like polyester, nylon and acrylic are often overlooked. The fashion industry is the second largest industry worldwide, and according to the Textile Network, it produced approximately 111 million metric tons of textiles in 2018, out of which 71,1% are made of synthetic materials. Fashion has a major impact on plastic pollution. How does this influence your health and the environment? What are the alternatives and possible solutions?

Fast fashion quickly became the new normal. In the Netherlands, the NOS (Dutch Broadcast Foundation) found out that on average individuals purchase up to 46 fashion items per year while throwing away about 40. Most discarded textiles are not recycled (yet), which means many end up in landfills or incinerated. This is one way fashion contributes to plastic pollution. But there are other ways that are perhaps even more troubling.

We wear clothes directly on our skin, our largest organ. Most people know by now about micro- and nanoplastics and how they threaten nature, animals and human well-being. But what is the effect of wearing plastic on your body?

Plastic is a durable material—which has great qualities—but when you are wearing, using or washing plastic textiles, the textile wears and tears. Since plastic does not decompose, but rather breaks down into smaller particles, these particles end up floating around in the air and water, possibly entering our bodies.

The thin and sharp shape of the nanoparticles from textiles make it even easier for them to enter our body, having been proven to reach unborn babies through the placenta, according to an article in De Groene Amsterdammer published in 2018. The effects are still uncertain, but it is known that plastics can leak harmful chemicals that can cause cancer or can be hormone-disruptive. The nanoparticles of textiles are potentially one of the most dangerous sources of small plastics.

Preparing different yarns and fabrics to use seaweed for sustainable textiles and avoid plastic pollution.
Preparing different yarns and fabrics for seaweed dye testing as part of the research project on how to use seaweed for sustainable textiles. Photo © Hannah Braeken

Wearing synthetic textiles can have even more negative effects on your health. Take bras, for example. Most of them are made of polyester or nylon, which cause body temperature to stay (unnaturally) high. Since the fabric does not ‘’breathe,” the body is unable to release toxins. Unfortunately, this is connected to an increasing incidence of breast cancer. Clement & Clement researched this and published their findings in the book Killer Clothes (2011). They also state:

‘’Women exposed to acrylic fabrics early in life multiplied their breast cancer risk by sevenfold, while nylon fibers almost doubled their risk, according to 2010 study results reported by the British medical journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine.’’

Are you still comfortable with wearing your clothes or did you already start looking at the labels?

At the moment our need for fashion means we are contaminating the planet and ourselves. It doesn’t have to be like this. There are many alternative materials and processes available, but we also need to change our behavior to turn this around. As Vivienne Westwood said: ‘’Buy less, choose well, make it last.’’ I believe that “choose well” does not only mean you need to buy something you really like, but also something that has been produced in a sustainable way, made of natural materials and under fair conditions. Throughout history, the only materials that were used were natural: think of wool, linen and cotton. Even though they are natural, we now see that the impact of each of these materials can turn problematic when grown at a large scale.

Seaweed yarn can be a sustainable replacement for plastic fabric and an alternative to avoid plastic pollution.
SEA ME rug, a yarn made of seaweed knotted in a discarded fishing net. Seaweed yarn can be a sustainable replacement for current yarns like cotton or viscose. Photo © Femke Poort

So, what can be done? Recycling synthetic fibers is definitely not an option, since it will not stop the release of the dangerous particles. A few years ago I discovered a perfect alternative in seaweed yarn. It does not need agricultural land, freshwater, pesticides, or chemicals in order to grow. Seaweed produces oxygen as it grows and even cleans the oceans while feeding on nutrients that are normally polluting. Turning seaweed into yarn is an ongoing research project for almost six years now, but one day it could become an alternative for the entire textile industry to create more sustainable and healthy clothes. How can we create more sustainable and healthy alternatives like this within the textile industry?

The fashion industry is making research on alternative materials to avoid plastic pollution.
H.E.R.B.S. quilt, dyed with rosemary, sage and camomile. The dye releases healthy essential oils from the herbs onto your skin when lying down under the quilt. Photo © Nienke Hoogvliet

Looking back at history, textiles were not only made of natural resources but often also dyed with plants. These natural dyes in some cases even contained beneficial health effects. Indigo, for example, was worn by Japanese samurai as underwear because of the antibacterial effect that would help their wounds heal faster. I researched this in the project H.E.R.B.S. and discovered that many herbs can have beneficial effects when used as a dye. Nature has so much to offer.

It only took around 70 years to pollute the earth with plastic. The material has brought us a lot in terms of prosperity and economics, but it is nature and our health that will pay the price. We must use plastics only for products where durability is a key function and search for bio-based alternatives wherever possible. I believe that by looking to nature and our existing knowledge about textile traditions, combined with the possibilities of new technologies, we can create a healthy and bio-based future.

Main image: Bladderwrack, a common Dutch seaweed that is used for natural dyeing and gives shades of brown, gold and pink. Photo © Hannah Braeken

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