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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- About the author -
"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."