Spandex is a stretchy synthetic fabric also known as elastane or lycra. It’s used in leggings, shapewear, and anything else that’s tight, elastic, and usually very comfortable. However, there are a few environmental issues attached to spandex that make it unsustainable and environmentally harmful.
Here are four reasons to avoid buying spandex in the future.
Made from Petroleum
Like polyester, spandex is primarily made from fossil fuels, specifically petroleum, which cause oil spills, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and methane emissions. This completely nonrenewable resource is responsible for half of the United States’ carbon emissions and about a third of the world’s carbon emissions. The problem is not just with the clothing being produced. When these synthetic garments burn, they release carbon into the air and contribute to rising air Pollution levels.
The spandex production process relies on several incredibly toxic chemicals that are responsible for serious health problems. Spandex is made from polyurethane, which is carcinogenic and may also be a mutagen. Repeated exposure to this chemical can cause damage to the kidneys, liver, brain, and bone marrow. Despite the known health risks associated with the substance, there are no occupational exposure limits.
Since spandex is a synthetic fiber, it often requires synthetic dyes. These man-made colorants are “notoriously one of the most polluting factors in textile manufacturing.” They compromise water quality, disrupt plant growth, make their way into the food chain, impair photosynthesis, and “increase biochemical and chemical oxygen demand.”
TDI and MDI (Toluene-2,4-diisocyanate; Methylene biphenyl-4,4-diisocyanate) are both used in spandex production. Both are toxic and TDI is carcinogenic. Spandex producers have to follow strict quality guidelines to guarantee that no MDI or TDI residue exists in the final garment.
Toxic on Skin
It should come as no surprise that the toxic chemicals in spandex can irritate the skin. TDI can cause dermatitis and other rubber or rubber-processing chemicals added to the fibers can also cause skin irritation. Spandex may also contain latex, which can cause allergic reactions. A good rule of thumb to remember is that more transparent spandex is less likely to contain latex.
Being a synthetic fiber, spandex isn’t breathable, which can make you sweat. Dyes and other chemicals or formaldehyde can also contribute to sweating in the stretchy garment.
Spandex is plastic. It is not biodegradable in any way, especially compared to linen, which will decompose in a landfill in a couple of weeks. To make matters worse, spandex is a source of microplastics. So old garments don’t just sit in a landfill for the rest of time — tiny pieces of it spread into our water, our food, and eventually, into our bodies.
The chemicals used to treat spandex release as the garments sit and rot, and will last even longer than the garment itself. Those toxic substances will seep into the soil and contaminate the land and water it comes into contact with.
So, What Can You Do?
To start, you can stop buying petroleum and polyurethane-based synthetic fibers like polyester and spandex. Just like we should all try to avoid buying plastic bottles, we should all avoid purchasing plastic clothing. There are so many other natural fiber options that do not suck limited resources from our already strained environment. Try to keep an eye out for those when shopping! You can also wear your clothes for longer and take better care of them in-between wears.
Finally, when your favorite pair of leggings are officially unwearable, recycle them to a textile recycling bank. Chances are they can be chopped up and turned into a brand new pair of flattering sportswear!
Love what you already have, be mindful of what you purchase, and remember, every sock, shirt, and pair of underwear requires precious resources and hard-working hands to make!
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