Plastics are used in so many facets of daily life, it’s almost mind-boggling to imagine what isn’t made with plastic to some degree. Because it’s everywhere, a conversation about plastics and sustainability could easily become a lecture series. Instead, here’s a handy intro to your wardrobe and microplastics. When you’re done reading, you can stand in front of your closet – the same one you’ve been staring at longingly all of 2020 – and suddenly see things in a whole new light.
First up: Some Background Info
The last category here is plastic. Most fabric made from synthetic materials is essentially thin strands of different kinds of plastic, combined or spun to make threads and then woven or bound together to make fabric.
Where Things Get Tricky
Almost allllll plastic will break apart into little bits. At the chemistry level, plastics are a lot like Legos: they are similarly-shaped blocks combined to get the finished product’s desired shape. When you are rough with the finished product, you’re gonna knock individual blocks loose, right? This is sort of how microplastics break off of any plastic, however durable it may seem.
It is also rather like split ends in your hair. Those are usually from the hair itself becoming worn out, so the friction against clothing and other surfaces over time causes the hair to break down and break off bits. Imagine if you looked closely at the fibers that make up your garments. With enough bending, stretching, and temperature change, the same basic concepts would happen to your garment. Pieces would splinter and break off.
Except those plastic bits that are broken off? Those don’t biodegrade. They just get more and more microscopic and move through the environment invisibly.
Washing synthetic fibers in laundry accounts for about 35% of the microplastics in the world today. When you wash a single garment made of synthetic materials, it may shed in the neighborhood of 64,000-1,500,000 microplastic pieces – PER WASH. These pieces are swept away in the water and head to your water treatment plant. That water treatment plant is not designed for microplastics. So those teeny tiny little pollution particles end up in all manner of places. We now quite literally have microplastics on beaches and in waters all over the planet. And these microscopic plastics are ingested by marine life, presenting one way they enter the food chain atop which we humans sit.
Synthetic fibers took off for a number of reasons. In fairness, they do things other fibers/fabrics couldn’t or didn’t without a lot of coaxing. There are great uses for synthetic fibers including air filters and in medical equipment of various forms, laundry dryer sheets, many of the masks we wear because of COVID, diapers, fabrics used in laying roadways, packaging, acoustic materials, shopping bags, insulation, and even tarps. Keep in mind though, the use of these materials means that bits of plastic are breaking off from them constantly, wherever they are used.
Ok, but what does having plastic in the environment actually mean?
The bodies of all living things have been evolving for a long time so they could do well in the environment where they live. They are not designed for quick changes any more than you or I are designed to suddenly breathe underwater.
Our biochemistry simply cannot tell the difference between plastic and other things which it mimics. So if a plastic looks like, say, estrogen, our bodies will roll with it. The trouble is, estrogen (in this example) is also a messenger to the body. It tells our organs to do things – it sets things in motion. If the body gets mixed messages about what to do and why, that can be downright dangerous.
Imagine all the plant and animal life on earth that’s exposed to microplastics right now, getting mixed signals about what to do because their biochemistry thinks they have legitimate instructions when, in fact, the bodies are “reading” plastics. As it is, the average person eats a credit card’s worth of plastic each week through hidden sources.
Yeah. It’s like that.
What To Do
Investigate the labels on your clothing. Do your own digging with reputable sources. Reach out to your favorite companies whose products might play into this problem and ask them what alternatives they’re offering to replace plastic. And until society has a good answer for what to do with the overwhelming amount of plastic we’ve already put into the environment, tell others and spread the word that this is going on. No one person is “wrong” for this, but now that we know, we all bear a responsibility to look the issue in the eye and help make it right.
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