Although you might congratulate your city for pushing paper straws and taxing plastic bags, there is a much greater contributor to plastic pollution that you often cannot even see. While macroplastics such as single-use straws and bags make up most of the ocean’s plastic pollution by mass, microplastics remain the worst culprit for ocean plastic pollution by particle count.

Source: Vox / Youtube

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These tiny, sometimes microscopic, plastics have been found in the digestive systems of hundreds of different species, starting from organisms as tiny as the plankton shown in the video above. From plankton, plastics travel up the food chain where they can ultimately be ingested by humans who eat fish (yet another reason to abstain from seafood). These microplastics come from a variety of sources, but recent research has shown that a shocking amount of these particles come from a ubiquitous, mundane task – laundry. Some estimates suggest that about 190,000 tons of plastic from clothing end up in the ocean each year and that nearly 5 trillion microplastic particles are currently floating around the ocean.

The Issue with Ingesting Microplastics:

As if ingesting tiny shards of plastic didn’t sound horrible enough, these particles essentially act as sponges that suck up pollutants in the ocean. These pollutants such as pesticides, motor oil, and heavy metals can be harmful to the organisms that ingest the plastics, whether that be plankton, fish, or human. Studies have shown that as these pollutants travel up the food chain, they become increasingly more concentrated in animal tissues. What’s even scarier is that scientists don’t yet know the extent of what long-term ingestion of these chemicals can cause within the human body.

Origins of Plastic Clothing:

Synthetic fibers have been around since the 1800s, but post-WWII America saw a boom in the manufacturing of these synthetic materials as there was a shortage of natural raw materials following the war. During this era, materials such as polyester, acrylic, and spandex became widely popular, and their prominence can still be seen to this day. Synthetic fabrics are much cheaper and easier to produce, though they are an environmental nightmare. Essentially, these materials are all made from plastics, which are made from liquid petroleum gas. In fact, in just one year, about 70 million barrels of oil are used to manufacture polyester alone.

As many corporations are motivated by greed, clothing companies favor cheap, easy-to-produce materials over natural, more sustainable ones. Fast fashion companies, in particular, rely on these cheap materials to produce their constant flow of new garments.

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Solution or Another Problem?

In response to the growing controversy surrounding the environmental impact of the fashion industry, certain brands posed their own solution. As opposed to generating new plastics from new oil, their models focus on recycling plastic that already exists and transforming them into clothing. On the surface, this seems like a brilliant solution — removing plastic that is currently polluting the earth, and transform it into something useful that would have needed plastic anyway. However, as with many complex issues, the solution is not that simple.

Tips for Buying Recycled Plastic Clothing

1. Make sure the brand isn’t just greenwashing 

The most sinister aspect of recycled plastic clothing is that some companies actually purchase new bottles to transform as opposed to removing already existing plastic from the environment. Their goal is one common to other forms of greenwashing — rely on deceit to sell spurious products to consumers who want to feel good about making an “eco-friendly” purchase. To avoid companies that use these tactics, see if they list specific information about how they source their plastic. Similarly, look for brands that are dedicated to other ethical practices, as evidenced by a dedication to fair wages or the use of natural dyes.

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2. Know that even with the best intentions, there are downsides 

Although a brand’s ethos might seem to embody ethical, sustainable practices, be aware that recycled plastic clothing has environmental downsides. Even though these clothes might be taking macroplastics from the environment, they ultimately release millions of microplastics back into the ocean with every wash. Although this fact is inevitable, there are ways you can make smarter choices when deciding what kind of recycled plastic clothing to purchase.

3. Look for garments that won’t require cleaning in the washing machine

Some ideas for garments that don’t require frequent washes include shoes and outerwear. For example, Rothy’s, Veja, and Nothing New make shoes from recycled plastic and other sustainable materials. Brands like Everlane, Patagonia, and Madewell make puffer coats from recycled plastic. But wait! One of these brands is not like the others… If you thought Madewell sounded suspicious, you would be correct. Although Madewell does have coats made from plastic bottles, overall their brand ethics and sustainability are not good enough to recommend. Be sure to look into the practices of these brands before making any purchase!

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Similarly, bags are a good option if looking to buy something made from recycled plastic since you don’t need to machine wash them. Rothy’s also makes a selection of ethical, recycled plastic bags, as does the brand Lefrik, which is owned by a vegan, yay!

4. When buying clothing that needs to be machine washed, purchase a filter bag.

There are many great brands out there with ethical and sustainable values that make clothing like leggings and shirts from recycled plastic. One example is Girlfriend Collective, a brand dedicated to ethical labor practices, minimizing environmental strain, and offering an inclusive selection of sizes. Their activewear is made from recycled plastic bottles and is one of the many steps they are taking to be an environmentally conscious brand. Although leggings will need to be washed regularly, you can stop the microfibers from entering the ocean by purchasing a filter bag. The most popular bag is Guppyfriend, which typically retails around $35.

These bags have such fine filters that microfibers are trapped and unable to enter the water stream. If you decide to purchase recycled plastic clothing I highly recommend getting one of these bags otherwise your seemingly ethical purchase might cause more harm than good!

Furthermore, garments like activewear and swimwear are typically made from synthetic fibers anyway, so buying pieces made from recycled material is the best way to go. Also, keep in mind that these filter bags should be used for any clothing made from synthetic fibers, as they all release microplastics.

5. As always, the most sustainable thing to do is not buy new clothes

The key to sustainability is simply minimizing your purchases! If you must buy something new, looking into ethical and sustainable brands is great. However, avoiding consumerism altogether is the most sustainable choice!

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