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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Celebrate Plastic-Free July: Atypical tips to reduce your use of single-use plastics

Plastic Free July Badge

In a 2017 article in the journal Science Advances, researchers Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck, and Kara Lavender Law estimated that as of 2015 “approximately 6300 Mt of plastic waste had been generated, around 9% of which had been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% was accumulated in landfills or the natural environment. If current production and waste management trends continue, roughly 12,000 Mt of plastic waste will be in landfills or in the natural environment by 2050.” With microplastics having been detected in virtually every habitat on Earth, including the ocean floor, and in a variety of organisms, including humans, it’s easy to understand why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released a draft National Strategy to Prevent Plastic Pollution, as described in a previous post (Note: The deadline for the public comment period has been extended to July 31, 2023, so don’t miss out on the chance to read the strategy and provide feedback). It’s also easy to understand why delegates from nearly 180 countries came together in Paris recently, to discuss what would be the first legally binding global treaty to reduce plastic pollution. The first draft of that treaty is scheduled to be developed by November 2023, with a goal of having a final agreement in force by 2025.

For a dozen years now, people have taken time in July to consider ways they might help stem the tide of plastic pollution. Plastic Free July is an initiative of the Plastic Free Foundation which began in 2011 and has grown into a global movement to reduce single-use plastic consumption and pollution. You can sign up to take the Plastic Free July Challenge, and receive weekly emails in July to inspire and motivate your plastic reduction efforts. To help get you started the Plastic Free July website offers tips on ways to reduce single-use plastic. You can probably guess some of the tips which have become common mantras among those interested in waste reduction, such as using a refillable mug instead of accepting single-use coffee cups or bringing reusable bags when you go grocery shopping instead of packing your items home in plastic carrier bags. But the tips below might surprise you and inspire you to think about just how ubiquitous single-use plastic has become.

Note: 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.

  • Chew less gum and/or opt for plastic-free alternatives. It may surprise you to know that chewing gum, based on the indigenous tradition of chewing natural rubber called chicle, involves single-use plastic in its actual substance and not just in its packaging. According to the website Plastic Free Shopper, “Most modern chewing gums have what’s known as a gum base which makes up the majority of the chewing gum. This synthetic rubbery substance is commonly made from ingredients including: Butadiene-styrene rubber Isobutylene-isoprene copolymer (butyl rubber); Paraffin (via the Fischer-Tropsch process); Petroleum wax; Polyethylene; Polyisobutylene; Polyvinyl acetate. This synthetic plastic/rubber gum base is mixed with sweeteners and flavourings to make up regular chewing gum as we know it. Ingredients such as Polyethylene and Polyvinyl acetate are both common forms of plastic. Polyethylene is found in items such as plastic bottles and food containers, and Polyvinyl acetate is used in glues and adhesives.” So, when people spit their gum out on the sidewalk, they’re not just littering and setting the innocent up for sticky shoes–they’re also contributing to plastic pollution. If you enjoy chewing gum, a simple way to reduce your single-use plastic consumption is to opt for brands made with natural chicle, such as Simply Gum or Glee, among others.
  • Take plastic out of your water filtration equation. If you’re avoiding water in disposable plastic bottles, odds are you might be using a reusable bottle or pitcher with a filter. However, the more popular units for this purpose still incorporate plastic in the filters. In October 2022, editors of The Good Trade shared their top five plastic-free water filtration options. It should be noted that most of these are pretty pricey and the filter cartridges for the plastic-free vessels still tend to incorporate some small amount of plastic. But the Kishu charcoal stick option is quite affordable, completely plastic-free, and after its days as a water filter are over, the sticks can be composted, put out in your garden, or reused to absorb odors in your refrigerator.
  • Quit smoking—or encourage a friend or family member to do so if you’re a non-smoker. There are obvious health-related reasons to do this, but did you know that cigarette butts are the most common form of plastic pollution? A 2019 review article in Environmental Research explained that “Cigarette butts (CB) are the most frequent form of personal item found on beaches. Yearly, 6 trillion cigarettes are smoked worldwide, and 4.5 trillion cigarettes are littered in the environment.” Once they have become litter, cigarette butts degrade into microplastics. E-cigarettes and plastic vape cartridges also contribute to the plastic pollution problem, as well as contributing to the burgeoning tide of e-waste (that’s another post for another day). Learn more at “Plastics, the Environment, and the Tobacco Industry,” an online resource from the University of Bath.
  • Dispose of pet poo without plastics. If you have a dog, or a cat whose litter box needs to be scooped, disposable plastic bags are probably a commonly used tool. It’s definitely important to pick up your dog’s poo during a walk (see this article from The Guardian and this page from the Dooloop website for more on the environmental impacts of your best friend’s excrement), but there are ways to take care of this business with less petroleum-based plastic. The Dog People list their choices for plant-based pet waste bags that are “compostable under the right conditions.” If you have a yard with available space, you might also consider a separate compost pile or bin for pet waste (avoid using this compost on your fruit or vegetable garden to prevent the spread of parasites, but feel free to fertilize your flowers and other ornamental plants). Doogie Dooley offers in-ground digester systems for breaking down dog waste (they’re not compatible with cat waste, sadly), and though all incorporate plastic lids, there is a model with a steel tank. I Love a Clean San Diego also highlights some pooper scoopers and disposal tips that allow you to pick up waste without using a dedicated plastic bag.
  • Reduce your use of laser printers and copiers when possible. We all know that printer ink and toner cartridges contribute to the plastic waste stream, so many of us recycle our spent cartridges and purchase remanufactured ones to reduce consumption of virgin plastics. But did you ever stop to think about what laser printer and copier toner is made of? Spoiler alert—toner is mostly made of plastic. We’ve all seen reminders to print documents or emails only when necessary to save paper, but it turns out, this is a good tip to avoid plastic consumption too. If you’ve ever added shredded office paper or junk mail printed on non-slick paper to your compost bin, you might reconsider and put those in the paper recycling bin instead. Toner starts out as a collection of microplastics, so when that printed paper breaks down in a compost pile, you might be inadvertently releasing those into your environment. This Federal Electronics Challenge resource from the US EPA includes tips for reducing paper and ink usage. See this post from CDW on the differences between ink and toner, and you might also consider bio-based toner options available in your country. Some of these reduce the amount of petroleum-based plastic involved by using powder made from soybean oil. Some bio-based toners also use a percentage of bio-plastics for the cartridges themselves, such as and

This post is already quite long, so we’ll stop at five tips, but there are many more ways to reduce single-use plastics. What are your favorites? Share your thoughts on social media.