Polyester pollution: not my problem?

I was originally trying to make a short video clip about how flammable polyester fleece wheat bags are, compared with my gorgeous pure wool products.  What actually happened was we ended up in the garden, with two wheat bags strung on my barbeque spit, dangling over two tea lights on a couple of baking trays, in fits of laughter.  Amateur, yes, and also very funny, as neither of the wretched things would catch fire despite our best efforts.  So much for my career as a film maker.  What had happened was obvious, while wool is naturally flame-retardant due to its high water and nitrogen content, the polyester fleece had been treated with flame-retardant chemicals.

So, is polyester ok?  Not remotely.  Once I started reading, I began to realise we have a major environmental problem that is a close second to global warming, and the textile industry is largely to blame.   We all need to wake up to the rise of polyester pollution.  Oh, and it turns out the flame-retardant chemicals are a nightmare in their own right, I wasn’t expecting that either.

It all started so well…

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Nylon was invented in the 1930s at Dupont in America, polyester in the 1940s at ICI in the UK.  The science was exciting, the potential uses even more so.  Housewives across both continents celebrated not only the advent of automatic washing machines, but the fabrics that could be popped into them with such little effort.  ‘Throw away your irons!’ they were told, you will never need them again. 

The miracle fabric of polyester was easy to wash, quick drying, didn’t need ironing, and was thankfully cheap, for a generation that had come through the war.  Light, bright, modern, and easily available, the fashions matched the mood of hope and optimism of the time.  Drip-dry suits were advertised by salesmen jumping into swimming pools, to demonstrate how easy-care these fabrics were compared to traditional wool suits.  Brave new world.

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While smaller groups of fibres used in textiles have stayed fairly constant, the rise of polyester use has surpassed even cotton, and that has its own environmental problems.  The furthest points of the graph show the current forecast for demand til 2030.  No decline on the horizon yet, folks, and apparently 95% of future increase is expected to be polyester.

What does that mean about our clothes?

I was staggered to find that about 65% of all fibres used in fashion today are in fact synthetic, mainly polyester.  (Although just a quick glance round Tesco showed that apart from cotton jeans and tees, it was probably all polyester of some sort).

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What’s so wrong with that?

The basic problem is that polyester is a synthetic fibre, made from petroleum, and therefore it’s made from a carbon-intensive non-renewable resource.  Not only that, but manufacturing it into fibres and clothing uses even more fossil-based energy to work the factories.  It uses double the energy of making cotton clothing, and the manufacturing process emits carcinogenic chemicals which can get into the water and air.  Apparently, over 70 million barrels of oil are used to make polyester every year.  It is not bio-degradable, so it will be with us forever. 

We take it for granted that our clothes are usually made in China, or somewhere far away that we don’t think about.  But China, Indonesia, and Bangladesh have incredibly lax environmental laws, and air and water pollution is frequently discharged without processing (never mind the horrific factory conditions). Some 69% of polyester fibre production is based in China, and adding India and South East Asia raises this to 86%.  So pretty much all of it is made with scant environmental controls.  We might feel concerned when we are watching the news, but we don’t remember it when we are shopping, and this has to change.

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It doesn’t stop there…

An even greater problem starts after we have shopped, tried on, made our minds up, and gone home with our glossy carrier bags feeling chuffed with our purchases.  The fibres shed.  They shed into dust in our homes, and they shed in the washing machine (polyester fleece is the biggest culprit here).  And the fibres they shed are really really tiny, less than 1mm.  You know the grey fluffy lint you occasionally remember to clean out of the tumble dryer?  It’s like that but getting washed out of the water in the washing machine, every single time.  Our washing machines don’t currently have a filter, and the fibres get swept along to the sewage treatment works.  They do have filters, but not small enough to catch our polyester fibres.  Some fibres are caught in the sludge, and that sludge is used as fertiliser on the fields, so the fibres are digested by organisms in the land.  The rest washes out to sea, to pollute the oceans.

We have had our eyes opened to the plastic pollution problem in the oceans, thank you David Attenborough.  We are getting better at using sustainable cups, and paper straws.  We re-use our supermarket bags, and we have switched cosmetics to avoid microbeads.  But our clothes!  Ladies, our clothes!  How many times do we buy new stuff?  How many washes do we do a week?  I’m not saying this as holier-than-thou, I’m a normal middle-aged woman who likes shopping and loves a bargain to cheer myself up.  I’m grateful to polyester and washing machines, I love looking slinky and smart when I go out, or cosy in my fleece in the winter.  This is all of us. 

The problem is that synthetic clothing is more affordable, and available to everyone.  We all rely on it for looking good with little effort, no-one wants to be washing and ironing silk on a work day.  All too often the more environmentally beneficial clothing is far too expensive and impractical, but we shouldn’t have to be really affluent before we can help the planet. 

So, what do we need to know?

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Firstly, the fibres go into the oceans and get eaten by everything from the tiniest plankton to the blue whale.  The initial problem with this is that is has been shown to stunt their growth, and reduce their lifespan, just because they have filled up on plastic.  We’ve all seen the reports showing knotted masses of plastic in washed-up whales, it is grim.

Secondly, and this is the bit I didn’t know, the plastic fibres absorb harmful chemicals from the water, even chemicals from years ago that might have been phased out now.  So not only are the fish eating indigestible plastic, but the toxic chemicals are building up in their bodies. 

Then lastly, as we know, bigger things eat the smaller things, and the whole problem goes up the food chain.  One report suggested that an average person ingests up to 5,800 particles of synthetic debris a year.  Even if we are unfeeling about marine life, surely we will wake up if it is poisoning our own species?

Plastic fibres have been found in sediment on beaches, in mangrove groves, in Arctic ice, and in freshwater fish, not just the oceans.  It is a hugely widespread problem, and we can no longer blame other countries for it, it is our rabid consumer demand that is driving this problem. 

You might have heard that polyester can be made from recycled plastic bottles, which saves using new fossil fuels, and that sounds really good.  But recent studies have shown that breaking down plastic bottles into microfibres is actually doing more harm than good, and is contributing to ocean pollution rather than reducing it. 

What should we do?

From what I have read so far, short of banning the whole fashion industry from using polyester, there are a number of simple things that we can try and change. 

The textile manufacturers need to be encouraged (dare I say regulated? or even strictly internationally regulated?) to improve production processes.  They could choose yarns that are spun more tightly to stop fibre loss.  They could wash their garments in a safe way to capture the fibres before they sell them to us.  They could add a vacuum system to eliminate loose fibres through air filtration processes, after the garments have been cut and brushed to be fluffy.  And they could establish industry standard testing and labelling to give us full information before we buy.

The washing machine manufacturers could build in filters to stop fibre loss in water, or we could go and buy bags to wash our stuff in that capture fibres from leaving the machines (Guppy bags).  The sewage works could invest in additional filters to stop fibres reaching the environment.

Finally, we can make a massive difference to the system by choosing what we buy.  The whole textile and fashion industry is driven by our demand.  They try to lead us by telling us what to buy, but if we make a concerted effort, we can influence them.  We can choose fabrics that shed less fibres, and sadly polyester fleece is by far the biggest problem.  We can buy less clothes, and make them last longer.  We can air them rather than always washing them.  And we must make sure we recycle any textiles we throw away, it can all be recycled not thrown into landfill.

A final word on flame retardants

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I started with an attempt to set fire to a polyester wheat bag, and was foiled by its flame-retardant treatment.  It sounds like such a good idea, to prevent fires.  But these chemicals have come under a lot of criticism in recent years, and we should be aware of why. 

We know that house fires have reduced massively with the decline of smoking, and the increased use of smoke alarms.  If there is a fire, people succumb to smoke inhalation well before the fire itself reaches them.  Apparently, the flame-retardant chemicals may do more harm than good.  They actually increase the amount of invisible toxic gasses in smoke, such as carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide.  Not good.

Worse still is that, in normal use with no fire, the chemicals migrate from the fabrics they are on originally, like sofas, carpets, clothing, hot water bottles, or onesies.  They end up in the air, or in dust, and can be very harmful, especially to babies and toddlers who crawl around on floors or put objects in their mouths.  These chemicals have been linked to cancer, and can harm the liver, kidneys, and brain.  They can affect male fertility, or cause neurological problems, memory loss, or skin conditions.  One study this year showed that mums in the UK have some of the world’s highest concentrations of flame retardants in their breast milk.  Really not good, and the government has yet to comment or change any of the current regulations. 

What we can do is lobby for change, and avoid buying the products we are aware are harmful.  No more polyester fleece wheat bags, whether they burn or not.

Caroline GurtlerComment