Have you ever thought about what happens after you put your synthetic clothes in the washing machine? Have you considered the amount of microplastics being released from your household in the surroundings during such a simple everyday task?
What exactly are synthetic fibers?
Synthetic fibers currently represent 60% of the clothing material manufactured worldwide due to the rise of fast fashion. But what are synthetic fibers? Most of them are man-made polymers and the substances used for their production are extracted from raw materials from petrochemicals such as petroleum. The entire process is artificial and chemical. Synthetic fibers consist of many repeating units called monomers which are created into threads, that are dried and woven into fabrics. These include polyester, nylon, acrylics and polyurethane.
Millions of tons of these fibers are produced all over the world each year. In 2016 synthetic production worldwide was estimated at around 65.8 billion tonnes. It is expected that by 2025 the volume will reach 134.5 tons of annual synthetic material production. 60% to 70% of this global production is carried out in China which is considered the leading exporter of synthetic clothing. The relatively low price of synthetics, and the way they are manufactured makes them a popular material for mass clothing production worldwide. Therefore, there is no wonder why fast fashion achieves such ‘speedy’ and affordable supply chain management. Meaning, in only two weeks a garment presented on a fashion show can be available for purchase on the shelves of the fashion stores!
What are microplastics?
Synthetic fibers can ‘leak’ microplastics especially during the washing process. Microplastics are small (less than 5 mm), degraded grains of plastic that break off from bigger plastic particles. They can be primary and secondary. The former refers to their intentional manufacture, in order to serve as a specific consumer product. The latter refers to the breakdown of larger plastic particles during washing or other processes. One type of microplastics is microbeads, which are derived from manufactured polyethylene plastic that comes not only from garments but also from beauty and health products. Microbeads have been an issue for more than fifty years now when plastic started replacing natural ingredients. Only in 2012 consumer awareness started to rise about various products that contain microplastics. Due to the recent awareness, microplastics are an emerging field of research, and ever more studies are done for their multifaceted impact.
Which materials are synthetic?
The most common synthetics or ‘man-made’ fibers are:
Nylon: once it is exposed to air it turns into hard filaments. As a fiber it is really elastic and easy to wash, it dries quickly and retains its shape. Nylon is considered a thermoplastic silky material that, apart from fiber, can turn into films and different shapes. You can find it in commodities like toothbrush, dental floss, parachutes, sleeping bags, vehicle tires etc. It is also widely used in manufacturing umbrellas and luggage.
Polyester: like nylon, is made from petroleum. Its name comes from the repeating units that compile it, known as esters which are made out of petroleum by-products and carboxylic acid. Polyester is easy to wash and remains wrinkle-free which makes it a suitable fiber for dresses and skirts. Other products that it is used for are ropes, fishing nets, raincoats and many more.
What is their impact?
Synthetics are one of the largest sources for environmental pollution, and responsible for more than ⅓ of microplastics polluting the oceans. This happens simply because our washing machines are not equipped to stop these kinds of fibers from passing undetected through the wastewater treatment systems. Instead, they end up in the atmosphere, in the water and also in our food chain since marine life digests them. Recent studies showed shocking amounts of microplastics coming out of the wash of synthetic garments of some well-known fast fashion brands. About 9 million synthetic microfibers go down the drain in an average load of washing in the EU. Only the apparel industry accounts for almost 35% of microplastics ending up in the oceans worldwide. The issue is much bigger than one can think, especially when recent researches predict that synthetic fibers will comprise 98% of all future increases in total fiber production. It goes without saying that microplastics are the first reason for ocean and soil pollution as they take hundreds of years to decompose. Instead, they end up digested by marine life killing more and more aquatic species.
How does Kleiderly contribute?
At Kleiderly, our mission is to reduce the plastic production worldwide by converting clothing waste into a 100% sustainable material that can replace oil-based plastics and their usage in many products.