By Kavita Ashton, guest contributor for Anything Goes Lifestyle

Nowadays, cutting back on plastic is a common habit in our households, whether it’s in our quest for “naked” food and drinks or swapping single-use products for reusables. But many of us are less clued up on the plastic hiding in our wardrobes – or more broadly, the problem of plastic in fast fashion.

A 2021 report by the RSA found that half of fast fashion is made entirely from new plastics, in the form of synthetic materials like polyester and nylon. On some websites, the figure was as high as 88% among new items.

So, plastic is inevitably at the core of many of our favourite outfits. But what’s the impact of all this plastic in fashion on the planet? We investigate…

An unending cycle of plastic in fashion

Fast fashion’s plastic pollution problem starts long before garments are in the (virtual and IRL) shop windows. Circle back to the start of a fast fashion garment’s life cycle and you arrive at the fossil fuel industry, because cheap synthetic materials are made using oil.

The damage fossil fuels are causing to the environment is well documented. But it’s not obvious, to most of us, that our clothes could be part of that problem. The demand for oil to make polyester is even fuelling Russia’s war against Ukraine, according to the Changing Markets Foundation.

There’s no hiding from the fact that our consumption levels help sustain this use of synthetic fabrics and fossil fuels. We’re in a time of throwaway fashion – the turnover of clothes in our wardrobe is more rapid than ever. Yet while it ends up as waste at lightning speed, plastic-based clothing can take 200 years to decompose, leaving behind a nasty mix of microfibres, chemicals and methane.

Discarded garments that aren’t left to rot in landfill can end up in toxic incinerators too.

Dirty washing: The impact of microplastics

Fashion’s plastic problem also rears its head with every wash. As our clothes go for a spin in the machine, microscopic pieces of plastic are flushed down the drains and into our waterways and oceans. One report estimated between 15% to 31% of marine plastic pollution could be from the tiny particles released by household and industrial items, clothes included.

Once these microplastics are out there in the ocean, they’re eaten by marine life. As you can imagine, plastic isn’t a healthy part of any sea creature’s diet. What’s more, the microplastics end up in the wider food chain and on our plates, causing health problems for us humans too.

Eco-friendly alternatives to synthetic materials

In recent years, you may have spotted more fashion brands launching lines made using recycled synthetic materials. Sometimes that’s simply something like recycled polyester from old garments, but there are more creative examples too. Like Patagonia’s NetPlus® material from discarded fishing nets.

But are these a sustainable solution to the industry’s plastic problem? Well, compared to virgin synthetics, recycled materials are a step in the right direction towards reducing fossil fuels in the production process and saving garments from landfill in the short term.

On the flipside, clothes made using recycled polyester or other plastic-based fabrics continue to shed microplastics. Plus, these garments can’t be recycled infinitely, so there’s still the question of longevity and what happens when we get rid of them.

As the plastic problem highlights, there’s a lot to weigh up when it comes to dressing sustainably. We share more thoughts on some related ethical issues in our article on shopping with fast fashion brands.

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