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  • Kristen Gilbride

You're Wearing Plastic: The Synthetic Fabric Takeover

Updated: Jan 1, 2020

Within the last few years I've seen such a push to refrain from single-use plastic products. Most recently we've seen a push to ban straws, use reusable shopping bags, and of course, not use plastic water bottles. All of these efforts have led to amazing individual changes and even the unthinkable, policy change! But I'm still waiting for the plastic fabric outcry to join these campaigns!

I looked at my closet and found 15 different fabrics that I know little to nothing about. What is the difference between acrylic, polyester and nylon??? And what are their effects on the environment?

Synthetic textiles are basically textiles that are made from chemicals or partly from chemicals. These fabrics can't biodegrade (although some can be recycled). If you take a look at the tags on your clothes you'll find a majority of these synthetic fabrics in everything, unless you've achieved a sustainable shopper's closet utopia. My closet isn't close to that (mainly because of thrifting) but here are a few synthetic fabrics I found in my closet.

sustainable fashion infographic, sustainable fashion, fashion infographic, synthetic textiles, cellulose, polyester, nylon, acrylic
Brief textile breakdown

Polyester is the most used man-made textile in the world. Polyester won't biodegrade, because it's a plastic. It's created by using a lot of toxic chemicals, and its main ingredient is petroleum, aka the world's biggest polluting industry. Although polyester is a durable fabric and can be use over-and-over, it is having a negative effect on our environment. The scariest part of polyester is that it produces microfibers. These microfibers have been found in the fish that we eat and the water we drink. So not only are you wearing polyester, you may be consuming it as well.... yikes!

Nylon is also a plastic product. It's made from petroleum and is found in most stretchy materials like stockings and underwear. When nylon is being concocted it produces massive amounts of greenhouses gasses and uses a high volume of water. But since nylon is a plastic it can be recycled as a no. 7 plastic! But it is quite challenging to find places that accept this. Despite this, there are a few innovative initiative for recycling like Swedish Stocking Company where you can send 3 ripped stockings to them and they will recycle them into industrial products.

Acrylic is a friend of nylon. Many knitted sweaters are composed of acrylic because it resembles wool. I found 3 sweaters made of it in my closet. Acrylic is made from acrylonitrile, and for people, like me, who have no idea what that is, it's poisonous and is used to make plastics. Acrylic can't biodegrade. Scarily enough, acrylic along with polyester and nylon has micro-plastics that make up 85% of the shoreline's man-made debris.

Most of us know what spandex is. It sucks us in and shapes us up, and it's found in all of my leggings. But like the synthetic fabrics above, spandex doesn't have a positive effect on our environment. Spandex isn't a really durable fabric, like polyester. So you need to take care of it differently, one of the best ways to do this is changing how you wash spandex. When drying spandex skip the drying machine all together and let it air-dry. This will expand its lifespan.

One silver lining in all of this plastic mayhem is most of these synthetic fibers can be transformed into new garments. We have the technology to recycle synthetic fabrics into new pieces. This limits the production of new fabrics and gives old fabrics a better place to live than in our landfills. Brands like Patagonia, Eileen Fisher, Everlane, and more, have lines dedicated to recycled synthetic fabrics. I encourage everyone who wants to make a small change to start with their clothes. If you have some extra money to spend, you can look into Terracycle's recycling option for clothing. Next time you shop for new pieces look at the tag and see if it's composed of synthetic fabrics and make the choice if it's worth buying.


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