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How fashion contributes to plastic pollution

How fashion contributes to plastic pollution

FFashion, particularly fast fashion, is a major contributor to plastic pollution in the form of microplastic fibres. The 80-year-old Martindale test for interior textiles could be part of the solution.

Plastic pollution from textiles

Plastic pollution has become one of today’s most important environmental challenges. Recent years have seen a sharp increase in the production of disposable plastic, and with it an increasing amount of plastic waste. We have now got to the point where approximately 8 million tons of plastic garbage spills into the oceans every year. Pictures of plastic bags and straws floating around in the ocean have reached us all.

But more sources of plastic pollution exist than are evident at first sight. Research has shown that products and garments made from synthetic materials, such as clothes, curtains, and carpets, form a source of plastic pollution as well. By wearing, washing, and drying synthetic materials, microplastic fibres are released. This invisible plastic waste consists of minuscule particles with dimensions smaller than 5 mm, and the diameter of most fibres is considerably less than 5 mm. These so-called microplastics are easily spread through water and air and are therefore found all across the world, as far as the arctic areas and the deep seas. Microplastic fibres are also found in our food and drinking water.

Although the consequences for human health and the environment are not yet clear, there is an abundance of research that points to adverse effects for animals in lab settings, in particular for growth and reproduction. Water companies filter out as much as possible, but in many countries this is not feasible. As microplastic fibres do not degrade and are almost impossible to remove from the environment, plastic pollution will accumulate. And a major source of these microplastic fibres are our own clothes.

Solutions: awareness raising and filtering

More and more awareness is being raised on the topic of microplastic fibre pollution. Already in 2016, the Plastic Soup Foundation set up the Ocean Clean Wash campaign. Besides Next to raising awareness among consumers, this campaign aims to involve all stakeholders in finding solutions: the fashion industry, washing machine producers, consumers, but also policy makers by lobbying them for regulation.

The National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands (RIVM) has also studied the subject and issued a report, ‘Microplastic fibres from clothing: Background report with potential measures’. A stakeholders’ network has been set up by Rijkswaterstaat, the Dutch executive agency responsible for main infrastructure facilities in the Netherlands, to explore solutions. In September, this network will publish a common communication so that all stakeholders can inform their audience about microplastic pollution from textiles. Furthermore, a standard method for measuring microplastic fibres has been developed. Water companies in the Netherlands are monitoring microplastic pollution and filtering wastewater to prevent emission. But that comes with high costs and does not solve the problem at the source.

While more awareness is being raised about the environmental impact of the textile industry, the demand for synthetic fibres is growing. Fast fashion thrives on the use of cheap, synthetic materials, focussing on producing cheap clothes meant for wearing just a few times. Although some brands, such as Patagonia, are more conscious and are taking action, many others are ignoring the issue. Brand organisations seem to be attempting to postpone measures. By lobbying for more research, monitoring, and testing methods as prerequisites for policy, several years have passed without any measure or regulation. But, as fast fashion is growing, pollution by microplastic fibres is growing as well.

Regulation regarding microplastic fibre pollution

Since the early 2000s, a number of countries have enacted legislation to reduce plastic pollution, such as the prohibition and levying of plastic bags. Microplastic pollution is also addressed, firstly by the US in the Microbead-Free Water Act, followed by other countries and the European Union (EU). While these regulations do not target microplastic fibres from textiles, their adoption has raised awareness on the issue of microplastic pollution under policy makers.

Slowly, the EU is moving towards measures that address microplastic pollution from textiles. The 2018 European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy, containing non-binding commitments, mentions the unintentional release of microplastic from synthetic textiles as an action point. Additionally, the European Commission has underpinned its commitments in the Green Deal, a set of policy initiatives outlining a road map towards climate neutrality and a clean, circular economy by 2050. The ideas of the Green Deal are further set out in the new Circular Economy Action plan of 2020, which includes several actions regarding microplastic fibre pollution. One of its main initiatives is a legislative proposal for a sustainable product policy, based on the Ecodesign Directive to non-energy-related products such as textiles. The strategy also calls for the development of labelling, standardisation, certification, and regulatory measures to address unintentionally released microplastics from tyres and textiles. Another promising development is the Zero Pollution Action Plan, which moves from tolerating an acceptable level of pollution towards the aim of zero pollution in 2050. But at the end of the day, these are all plans and as yet there are no legislative or other measures in force to curb plastic pollution from textiles.

A Martindale abrasion test for clothing

As a total shift from synthetic materials may not be realistic, one of the solutions is to make these fabrics more resilient to wear and tear. Abrasion and resilience tests exist for interior textiles and the most famous one, the so-called Martindale abrasion test, was developed in the 1940s. In order to measure abrasion resistance, the fabric is rubbed against a standard abrasive surface with a predetermined force. The number of abrasion cycles defines the strength of the fabric, so the higher the number, the stronger the fabric.

The Martindale method has become an ISO standard for interior textiles and is applied worldwide. Currently, fashion brands and designers use their own methods to assess fabrics for clothing, for example regarding colour fastness and shrinkage. Such an assessment could be supplemented by an adapted Martindale test that measures not only the strength, but also the release of microplastic fibres. This would not only inform producers, but also retailers and consumers, and would make it easier to make a more sustainable choice when it comes to fashion. Furthermore, such a test, in particular if it becomes an ISO standard, could provide a base for regulation in order to exclude the worst performing fabrics from the market.

Conclusion

Fashion, in particular fast fashion, is a major source of environmental pollution. Synthetic clothes contribute to the plastic soup by shedding microplastic fibres. One of the solutions could be the development of a Martindale-style test to measure abrasion and microplastic release. Such a test would raise awareness for making a more sustainable choice, but could also set a standard for regulating polluting textiles.

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