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A Garment is not Sustainable if the Fabric isn't: Impact of Synthetic clothing on the Environment

More than 500,000 metric tonnes of microplastics, most of which are shed in the washing machine and end up in the soil and ocean as plastic soup, are released into the environment every year from our clothing.

They get into our bloodstream and food. Brands claim to lessen this issue, but is there any other option outside simply avoiding synthetic fabrics? Mesh bags, designed to catch these microfibers discharged during the laundry cycle, are now widely available from many merchants. According to Zara and BASF, a unique detergent they developed decreases shedding by as much as 80%. According to Samsung, a new washing machine created in collaboration with Patagonia can cut microplastic pollution by up to 54%. However, some environmental experts disagree that the focus should be on the design choices that lead to the problem in the first place rather than on what consumers can do to prevent shedding.

As the name implies, tackling microfibres begins with an examination of the fibres, yarns, weaves, and knits used to create finished garments. They can have a wide range of characteristics, with some being more likely to shed than others. According to 2017 UN estimates, the fashion industry is now accountable for 35% of yearly microplastic emissions due to the exponential growth of polyester garments over the past 20 years. Natural fibres like cotton and wool that emit microfibers are also a cause for worry, especially if the biodegradability of the fibres is hampered by dyes or chemical coatings.

Research into the types of fibres and textiles that are most susceptible to shedding has increased along with awareness of the problem. The Microfibre Consortium has compiled shedding information for more than 600 different fabrics as part of its mission to enhance microfiber research and solutions in the textile industry. Many in-house studies have also been conducted by brands like Under Armour and Patagonia, the sportswear behemoth known for its fleeces and puffer vests as much as for its environmental activism.

Textiles undergo an industrial washing process that produces a sizable quantity of microfibre shedding before they are ever placed in customers' washing machines. According to research from an environmental organisation, textile manufacturing releases 120,000 metric tonnes of synthetic microfibres annually, compared to 530,000 metric tonnes in the consumer-use phase.

According to research conducted by Forum for the Future and Singapore-based textile company Ramatex, businesses could lower these volumes by lowering water usage and temperatures during wet processing and dyeing, but with currently available technology, that can result in compromises on quality and consistency in the finished products. The report found that lower-impact dyeing innovations like waterless printing, supercritical CO2 chambers (which use dyes dissolved in gas rather than water), or dope-dyeing (which injects pigment into synthetics at the plastic-pellet stage) could be transformative in lowering microfibre pollution at the manufacturing level.


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