Plastic Free July: Tips for reducing plastic pollution from your clothing and textiles

Plastic Free July 2024

Plastic Free July is an awareness campaign coordinated by the Plastic Free Foundation which began in 2011 and is geared toward encouraging individuals to reduce plastic waste and pollution through small lifestyle changes, especially through the reduction of single-use plastic. To celebrate Plastic Free July in 2023 on this blog, we focused on a few ‘atypical tips’ for reducing plastic pollution by highlighting some common, non-intuitive sources of plastic. This year, we’ll similarly focus on a source of plastic pollution that you may find surprising—clothing and other textiles.

As always, please remember that ISTC does not endorse, either explicitly or implicitly, any particular manufacturer, vendor, product, or service. Information about specific products, manufacturers or vendors is provided for reference only.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), about 60% of material made into clothing is plastic, including polyester, acrylic, and nylon textiles. Every time we wash these clothes, they shed plastic microfibers, a form of microplastics, which are up to five millimeters in size. Think of emptying the lint trap of your dryer; clothes shed material in the washing machine as well but are released along with the wastewater. While water treatment plants can remove a majority of these fibers from water, plants vary in their removal efficacy and none can remove 100% of these tiny particles. Some make their way into the environment when the treated water is discharged to lakes or rivers, or via the collected sludge (aka “biosolids”) from treatment plants, which is sometimes applied to agricultural fields as fertilizer.

Textiles are also increasingly being treated as disposable goods. “Fast fashion” is defined as “an approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers.” This typically means individual articles of clothing are of low quality and likely to wear out quickly, at which point they’re discarded (too often in landfills) and replaced by new inexpensive, less durable items. According to the Illinois Materials Management Advisory Committee Report to the General Assembly (2021), 279,188 tons of clothing were disposed of in Illinois landfills in 2018, along with 235,523 tons of “other textiles.” In that same year, the U.S. EPA reported that nearly 17 million tons of textile waste were generated nationwide, with 11.3 million of those tons going to landfills (3.2 million tons were combusted). The recycling rate for all textiles was 14.7 percent in 2018, with 2.5 million tons recycled. So although clothing and other textiles aren’t “single-use” plastics, they are examples of materials that are not necessarily built to last that contribute to the release of plastics into the environment.

So what can you do to reduce plastic pollution from textiles?

Resist fast fashion and reduce consumption. In general, reduce the amount of clothing you buy. Think about what items you really need and will wear repeatedly, and avoid accumulating more clothes than you can reasonably use. Choose versatile separates that can be paired with multiple other items in your wardrobe to create different outfits. When you must buy something, look for items that are durable and well-made. This will often (but not always!) mean that you’ll invest more money up-front. However, if you need to replace items less frequently, that investment will pay off in the long run. Check out Good on You’s guide to choosing clothes that last, and The Luxe Strategist’s detailed ‘An Actually Practical Guide to Shopping for High-Quality Clothes’.

Second-hand first.  When you do buy clothing, consider used but “new to you” items. Participate in clothing swaps with friends or community members. Shop at thrift stores, consignment shops, or online resellers in search of those interchangeable and durable pieces mentioned above. The Luxe Strategist guide referenced above points out that truly vintage (pre-1970s) clothes are “built like tanks, and the differences between those and lower-quality clothes from today are unmistakable.” Extending the useful lives of textiles that have already been manufactured is important to reduce the demand for new items, keep existing clothing out of landfills, and conserve the embodied resources (e.g. energy, water, labor, etc.) that went into manufacturing those items. Fewer newly produced clothes mean fewer new plastics required to meet consumer demands.

Choose responsibly produced new items, made from non-synthetic fibers whenever possible. This may sound relatively simple, but if you’re concerned about sustainability in general, it’s important to acknowledge that a lot of resources and potentially harmful chemicals go into the production and harvesting of natural, non-synthetic fibers (e.g., cotton, silk, wool, etc.) as well as their processing, dyeing, and distribution. So keeping sourcing and production in mind will always be advisable. If you’re not able to find the particular item you need made from natural fibers, then the next best option would be items resulting from textile-to-textile recycling, as a way to increase demand for responsible management of textiles at the end of their first life. Even better if you find items made from recycled natural fibers! It can feel overwhelming to try to navigate the various factors involved in sustainable production, so check out this recent article from CNN Underscored highlighting 15 sustainable clothing brands, as well as Good On You’s explanation of the relative impacts of various clothing materials, including plant-based, animal-derived, and synthetics. In general, certified B Corporations meet standards for environmental and social impacts, so clothing and textile brands with this certification might be deemed preferable.

Consider your laundry routine and repair your textiles. Fewer chores are a good thing–for you and the environment! One of the simplest steps you can take to reduce plastic pollution is to launder your clothing and textiles less frequently. Fewer trips through the wash cycle mean fewer plastic particles sent down the drain. Plus, you’ll save water and electricity and your clothes won’t wear out as quickly! Unless you’ve sweat profusely, been exposed to harsh elements, or participated in a particularly dirty job like digging or painting, your outer garments might be able to be aired out and worn at least one additional time before getting tossed in the laundry basket. Check out Real Simple’s guide on how frequently to wash various types of clothing. When you do laundry, use cold water unless you have deeply soiled items. Cold water is effective at getting laundry clean, and research has shown that colder wash cycles result in decreased microfiber generation.

Returning to the notion of cleaning your lint trap, air-drying clothes is another option for reducing wear that leads to microfiber shedding.

Mending rips, patching worn spots, replacing buttons, and otherwise altering clothing are great ways to keep your textiles in service for longer, which can reduce the need for new synthetics and keep plastics out of landfills and the environment. If you’re not skilled with a needle, support the local economy by taking your items to a tailoring and alteration shop. If you’re willing to do it yourself but lack experience, an abundance of online guides and videos can help you learn basic techniques. For example, see “Simple Ways To Mend Your Clothing Without A Sewing Machine.”

Trap or filter microfibers released in your washing machine, and consider the washer itself. There are ways to minimize the plastic pollution drained from your washer. First, if you’re in the market for a new washing machine, consider a front-loader. According to Energy Star, not only are these machines more resource efficient, but they’re gentler on clothes, resulting in less microplastic shedding.

Low-tech in-wash plastic pollution reduction options include using a device to collect loose fibers in the wash water, like the Cora Ball, or washing your synthetic fabrics inside garment bags, so you can manually remove collected fibers and put them in the trash. High-tech options include external filters that can be attached to your existing washing machine, or the emerging technology of washing machines with a built-in filter. France became the first country to regulate plastic microfiber pollution from laundry by adopting a law that will require new washers to have microfiber filters by 2025, so such machines will hopefully become increasingly commonplace.

When they can no longer be used, recycle your textiles. When your clothing and other textiles are no longer useful, don’t send them to the landfill! Check with your local government for area textile recycling options or consult the Illinois Recycling Foundation directory. If options aren’t available in your area, consider a mail-in take-back program.

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