Problems with Synthetic Fabrics

Problems with Synthetic Fabrics

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The textile industry is dominated by synthetic materials such as polyester, nylon, rayon, or acrylic,  because synthetic and microfibres are cheaper to produce and easier to produce in large scale. But the  production of these synthetic fibres is damaging the environment on a massive scale. Synthetic fibres  are man-made fibres and are usually manufactured usually from oil, coal or natural gas.  

China is the largest producer of synthetic fabrics, accounting for 70% of total global production. India  is the second-largest producer, but only 7.64%, while the European Union is the largest importer of  synthetic filament fibres. The EU is followed by Turkey and the United States.  

Synthetic fabrics are cheap and versatile materials that fast fashion brands love to use to keep the  price down and offer a large range of items. Sportswear brands also use them often because they  provide a certain stretchability. However, there is a big problem with these materials.  

Environmental Impacts of Synthetic Materials 

Synthetic fibres produced from petroleum pose a significant risk to the environment. Clothing that  contains synthetic fibres such as polyester and nylon contributes to microplastic pollution, which can end up in the ocean and threaten marine life. Each year, 1.5 million tons of microplastics and up end  of in the ocean, and 35% of it comes from synthetic fabrics. These plastic-based fibres have been  found as far away as the North Pole and Antarctica. Most of our water is polluted with microplastic  and putting marine life in danger. Oftentimes, these microfibres are released into the environment  through loads of laundry. It is reported that the synthetic fibre industry is accountable for over 20% of  industrial water pollution in the world. 

Plastic-based materials are non-biodegradable. Though they will eventually break down, this process  might take up to 500 to 1000 years. In North America alone, 10.5 million tons of clothing is sent to  landfills every year. A lot of synthetic fabrics contain hazardous chemicals such as PVC or solvents,  they can leach into the soil while the garments are sitting on the landfill and ultimately pollute  groundwaters. If plastic-based clothes are incinerated, it would release toxins such as dioxins, acid  gases and other toxic substances into the air. 

Recycling could be a solution to reduce the clothes ending up in landfills. However, there are many  challenges to overcome. Only high quality, pure synthetic fabrics can be recycled (not downcycled),  and there’s only one company in Japan that can do so on a large scale. But their factory is currently  maxed out on capacity. 

 

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Clothing made with blended materials like cotton blended with polyester poses a serious problem for  recycling. There’s no technology that can separate the plastic threads from natural threads at scale yet.  Also, even if it is recyclable, it will not get recycled if we don’t dispose of it properly and eventually  end up on the landfill. Less than 1% of collected clothing is truly recycled into a fresh textile as a  result.

Health Risks of Synthetic Materials

Synthetic fibres pose health risks to human bodies.  Whenever we wear garments made with synthetic fabric, we are surrounded by plastic, which is a by product of petroleum. Fabrics like polyester are strongly linked to hormonal disruption and even the formation of breast cancer cells.  

Factory workers are suffering from these health hazards as well. The process of changing petroleum into the polyester is a long, toxic and nasty process and these workers, some of them are children, face debilitating health issues.  

Microplastic fibres are so small, they can be difficult to clean out of waterways. Microfibres can bypass water filtration system and end up in drinking water and on land fertiliser, which means they frequently pollute our food and drinking water. So we are consuming microplastic through the water we drink, food and fish we eat.  

Most activewear uses synthetic fabrics because of its “moisture-wicking” property which quickly  remove sweat from your skin. While that may sound helpful, it actually tricks your body into sweating  more, as it wicks away your sweat before the moisture can do its job of cooling your body down. This  can lead to excessive sweating, dehydration, and the loss of minerals your body actually needs during  exercising. Moreover, when your body pores open up to sweat, it’s also taking in all of the toxins  found in synthetic-made activewear. Your skin is the largest organ of elimination and absorption -  what goes ON the skin goes IN the body.  

Microplastic entering the human body can lead to an array of health impacts, including inflammation,  geno-toxicity, oxidative stress, apoptosis, and necrosis, which are linked to an array of negative health  outcomes including cancer, cardiovascular diseases, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, chronic  inflammation, auto-immune conditions, neurodegenerative diseases, and stroke.  

With regards to the health conditions are the different types of chemicals used in the dying and  bleaching process as well. Throughout the years and through lots of research, scientists have found  that some of the worst harmful wear fabrics that should be avoided are the ones that contain polyester,  rayon, acrylic and nylon.

Hazardous Chemicals Used in the Manufacture of Synthetic Fibres 

To live a more sustainable lifestyle, it is important to know what kind of environmental and health  impacts each material has, and make informed purchasing decisions. Although plastic-based fabrics  are very durable and usually long-lasting, it has high environmental and health impacts. Over 170  chemicals are used to produce synthetic materials and have known human health impacts. 

Polyester 

Polyester thread or yarn such as Terylene, Dacron, Lycra or Vycron are the most prejudicial fabrics for  our body. They are manufactured from both dihydric alcohol and terephthalic acid, both are highly  toxic and are not completely removed after manufacturing process, resulting in easy access to the  body through the wet skin, causing dermatitis in addition to respiratory infections. Some disorders  such as reduced sperm count and behavioural changes are also associated with the constant wearing of  Polyester clothes.  

Rayon 

Made from recycled wood pulp processed by carbon disulfide, sulphuric acid, ammonia, acetone, and  caustic soda to withstand regular washing and constant wearing. Carbon dioxide emitted from  Rayon’s filaments can cause a headache, vomiting, nausea, muscle pain and insomnia. Some toxins  released from Rayon can also occasion tissue necrosis, anorexia and Parkinson’s disease for people  who regularly wear clothing made of it.  

Acrylic 

Contains acrylonitrile, when enters human bodies through the skin by wearing garments made from  acrylic fabric, it could cause breast cancer in women. If the process of manufacturing acrylic is not  carefully monitored, it can lead to explosions. Acrylic fibres are highly flammable. They are also not  easy recyclable nor biodegradable in the environment.  

Nylon 

Relies on petroleum and receives many chemical treatments using caustic sodas, sulphuric acid, and  formaldehyde during manufacturing as well as bleaching and softening factors such as chloroform,  pentane, limonene, and terpineol. Even after the manufacturing process, the fibre still retains toxins  

that can be harmful. Diseases associated with repeated wear of nylon clothes include allergy skin,  dizziness, headache, spinal pain. Nylon production emits nitrous oxide, which is very dangerous to the  ozone layer, 300 times more than carbon dioxide. Nylon does not take natural dyes or low impact  chemical dyes, so the process of colouring the fibre also creates significant water pollution. 

Spandex 

Manufactured by polyurethane dissolved in a dimethylformamide, dimethylacetamide or dimethyl  sulfoxide. These strong chemicals make spandex wear for a long time cause allergies, impetigo, and  folliculitis. 

Moving Forward 

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Make sure you dispose of clothes in a way that it won’t end up in the landfill or incinerated. You can  consider donating your clothes to local charities and thrift shops, garments that are hard to be resold  or reused like underwear, take them to local textile recycling facilities. Also consider reselling or  swapping with your friends or family. 

You can also reduce the microplastic being released whenever you wash your clothes by using the  laundry “Ecoegg” or “Guppyfriend Washing Bag” that catch microfibres released from synthetic  garments and prevent these fibres from entering the waterways. Another solutions is using front loading washing machines and producing fabrics that shed fewer microfibres.  

If you want to avoid synthetic fabrics all together, you can always choose natural-based fabrics like  cotton or bamboo. As a sportswear textile, cotton might not be that technical but works as soft and  comfortable material. If it’s organic cotton, it can be activewear that doesn’t cause harm to your body  and the environment as much as plastic-based fabrics do. 

Until clothing production becomes completely sustainable and technology finally makes clothing  recyclable on a massive scale, the best thing we can do is not buy clothes you don’t need and make  the ones we already have last. We have to foster the culture of valuing quality over quantity and  support companies that make clothes that can be loved for years. 

External Links 

https://www.voguebusiness.com/sustainability/fashion-biodegradable-material-circularity-cotton https://ecowarriorprincess.net/2020/09/guide-fashion-recycling-recycled-clothing/ https://www.publicecology.de/journal/noblendedmaterials 

https://luxiders.com/5-toxic-textiles-to-avoid/ 

https://www.ecoegg.com/ 

https://en.guppyfriend.com/ 

 

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- About the author -

Miko Takama

"Miko Takama marketing freelancer based in Berlin, specialised in sustainable business strategy and branding & communication strategy, also a Journalist. She is passionate about sustainability in the fashion industry. On her website and Instagram, she is sharing insights on conscious lifestyle and her journey to start a sustainable fashion brand, Public Ecology."

 


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