Fashion Waste Poised to Become Environmental Crisis

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August 16, 2017 | 19,174 views

Story at-a-glance

  • Plastics are a part of your everyday life, from food containers and shower curtains, to personal care products and clothing, which contribute to 85 percent of shoreline debris worldwide
  • Waste from the textile industry begins at the factory, where up to 12 million pieces may be discarded in one year from one factory; industry experts estimate people wear their clothes for less than three years before discarding them
  • You may reduce pollution from your clothing by purchasing brands that take steps to clean their supply chain, being mindful how you wash your clothes and installing a microfiber filter in your washing machine

By Dr. Mercola

Over the past decades society has moved from using biodegradable, recyclable natural products to highly resilient and nonbiodegradable plastics made with toxic chemicals. Plastics invade nearly every area of your life — even parts you don't see, such as your clothing and microbeads in your makeup and facial products.

Each of these contribute to a rapidly growing problem in the environment, especially our oceans, where plastic micropollution is quickly overtaking the fish population. Discarded plastics are polluting your food supply and ultimately finding their way into your body where they accumulate over time. The risk grows with every discarded bottle, bag, shower curtain and load of wash.

Microfibers that enter the water supply from your washing machine are not the only ways fabric is fast becoming an environmental crisis. The fashion industry has nurtured people's desire for new clothes to the point that trends shift weekly. These rapidly changing trends naturally result in more clothing being discarded, ultimately clogging up our landfills.

Clothing Purchases on the Rise

The Waste and Resources Action Plan (WRAP) in the U.K. estimates the average piece of clothing lasts approximately 3.3 years, but this estimate may be too high.1 According to one British fashion company, many customers only keep new clothing for about five weeks before it ends up being donated or thrown out.

Today, the average woman in the U.S. owns 30 different outfits, as compared to the nine she owned in 1930,2 and we throw away approximately 65 pounds of clothing per person each year. Americans spend more on shoes, jewelry and watches than on higher education, and 93 percent of girls say shopping is their favorite activity.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates the amount of clothing recycled is equivalent to taking 1 million cars off the road each year.3 But, 13 million tons of textiles still make it to U.S. landfills every year. The American apparel industry grosses $12 billion.4 Estimates are the average family in the U.S. spends $1,700 per person each year on clothing. The dollar amount is not significant as it represents a small percentage of annual spending, but the cost to the environment is steep.

Fashion Industry Waste Laden With Toxic Chemicals

While it may seem the number of textiles discarded are not important, as most fabric should be biodegradable, the reality is the large amount of clothing thrown away contains more than cotton. The textile industry has taken full advantage of chemicals available to protect the garment or make changes to the product without consideration for how these chemicals affect the environment.

Procedures to treat clothing include using specialized chemicals, such as biocides, flame retardants and water repellents.5 Over 60 different chemical classes are used in the production of yarn, fabric pretreatments and finishing.

When fabrics are manufactured, between 10 and 100 percent of the weight of the fabric is added in chemicals.6 Even fabrics made from 100 percent cotton are coated with 27 percent of its weight in chemicals. Most fabrics are treated with liquid chemicals to ready them for the fashion industry, going through several treatments before being shipped to a manufacturer.

Many chemicals have known health and environmental issues. Greenpeace7 commissioned an investigation into the toxic chemicals used in clothing. They purchased 141 different pieces of clothing in 29 different countries. The chemicals found included high levels of phthalates and cancer-causing amines. The investigators also found 89 garments with nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs). Levels above 100 ppm were found in 20 percent of the garments and above 1,000 ppm were recorded in 12 of the samples.

Any level of phthalates, amines or NPEs found in clothing that remains against your body is unacceptable as they are hazardous materials. However, the dangers from these chemicals don't end when you finish wearing the garment. As the material makes it to a landfill, these chemicals leach out from the fabric and make it to the groundwater.

Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) have been widely used in textile marketing and have been linked in epidemiological studies with several different types of cancers in humans.

These chemicals are so ubiquitous they've been found in the blood of polar bears and found in tap water supplies used by 15 million Americans in 27 states.8 Cheap, mass-produced clothing has given many individuals the chance to purchase the current style without breaking the bank. But an initial reduction in price on clothing may be at the expense of both people and the environment.

Clothing Is Not the Only Undervalued Factor in the Fashion Industry

Producing and selling sustainable clothing becomes more difficult each year as advertisers challenge you to purchase the newest fashion for the season and get rid of what's in your closet. This increase in demand has created not only a glut in the landfills, but also an industry that undervalues the human lives making the latest fashion.

One of the largest death tolls in recent history in the garment industry happened in Bangladesh when an eight-story building collapsed, killing 1,100 people making clothing for high end manufacturers.9 Following the disaster, widespread reforms were promised, but a report from the Human Rights Watch suggests that not enough has been done to protect the lives of garment workers.10

Nearly a decade ago T-shirts and low-cost clothing were made in the China province of Guangdong, known as the "world's workshop."11 Today much of the work has moved to Dhaka, Bangladesh, as soaring labor costs in China and their gradual shift from low-end to high-end manufacturing sent the garment industry searching for cheaper labor.

In California, garment workers are paid by the piece, often amounting to approximately $6 an hour, well below the $10.50 minimum wage standard set in that state.12 Factory owners get away with low wages and poor working conditions as most of the workers are undocumented and afraid to speak out. These sweatshop tactics are what keep the cost of mass-produced department store clothing within reach of the average consumer.

At the request of a U.S.-based garment brand, research was launched to explore the issues surrounding undocumented workers in the garment industry.13 They found that many of the people were at great risk of wage and working hour violations that placed their health and safety at risk. The workers were also at risk for abuse and harassment since they were undocumented and unwilling to report the conditions under which they were working.

Synthetic Fibers Clogging the Oceans

In your home, textile pollution begins in your washing machine. Testing has demonstrated that synthetic microfibers from clothing makes up 85 percent of shoreline debris worldwide.14 They tend to be particularly concentrated in beach sediment near wastewater treatment plants,15 indicating these plants are unable to filter the microfibers from the wastewater before dumping it into the environment.

Current studies have found microfibers are more prevalent than microbeads, and are particularly dangerous as the fibers are small enough to easily be eaten by fish and other wildlife, accumulating in the gut and concentrating in the bodies of other animals higher up the food chain. Once in the water, plastics also block sunlight required for plankton and algae to survive.

Since these microscopic plants are essential food for many smaller fish, the consequences of this pollution are experienced from the bottom of the food chain to the top — your dinner plate. To gain perspective on this problem, consider that in some ocean waters the amount of plastic outnumbers the amount of plankton 6-to-1.16 Included in these microfibers are toxic dyes, fabric treatments and flame retardants that add to the growing environmental problem posed by clothing.

Tests have demonstrated that washing fleece jackets releases between 1.7 to 2.7 grams of microfiber into wash water and eventually into the environment.17,18 Estimates suggest a city of 100,000 people may deposit up to 240 pounds of microfibers every day, an amount equal to 15,000 plastic bags entering the waterways on a daily basis. There are a number of different factors that contribute the amount of fibers your clothing sheds with each washing, including:

There Are Significant Barriers to Recycling Clothing

Recycling clothing may seem like the answer to the growing amount of textiles in landfills. However, there are several barriers to this solution, starting with production of the original piece. Much of the waste in the fashion industry is hidden from view before the final product even makes it to the department store racks.22

Ready-made garments are assembled and sewn in large quantities. However, if the material is deemed inadequate due to color differences or when a mistake is made in the order, the garments are discarded. This accounts for up to 5 percent of the factory's waste. Considering one large factory may produce up to 240 million pieces each year, this means 12 million pieces of clothing may get discarded every year from a single factory.

Waste from the cutting room or after a mistake is made in the order makes it to the streets of Bangladesh. Estonian designer and clothing waste researcher Reet Aus commented on the material waste he's seen as he follows unwanted garments out of the factory gates, saying:23

"You don't even want to know. You see it by the side of the road being sold or just dumped, but a lot is burned. I know a brick factory near the garment district where the main fuel is garment waste. You can't really see anything around there, the pollution is terrible. Remember that thanks to the chemicals and finishing agents, used textile waste is basically toxic waste."

With a growing awareness of the need to recycle, reuse or repurpose textiles to reduce the amount ending up in landfills, consumers are calling for more sustainable products. Companies are experimenting with ways to meet this demand while maintaining their own profit margins.

The U.S. is proving to be a larger challenge. Jana Hawley, director of the University of Arizona's School of Family and Consumer Science, studied the textile industry for 20 years. She notes the difference between Europe and the U.S. is that Europeans value high-quality clothing they can keep for longer periods of time. She believes refocusing consumers to buy fewer clothes at higher prices could make a difference in reducing waste.24

Some companies are looking at ways to recycle fabric in clothing that has been discarded, but the barriers are significant. Retailers would first have to motivate consumers to bring clothes back when they are finished with them. Manufacturers would then have to find ways to recycle the fabrics. Polyester may be melted and reformed, but cotton-based fabrics don't retain strength of the original fiber when broken down, and many textiles are made from a combination of different types of fibers.

Commit to Care What You Wear

There may not be one answer to reduce the amount of clothing that ends up in landfills and pollutes waterways, but there are several steps you can take that will help. Purchasing clothing made from organic cotton is an excellent start. Natural fiber garments may minimize the amount of microfiber shedding common with synthetic fibers.

Consider joining Regeneration International's "Care What You Wear"25 campaign, which aims to educate consumers and expose problems in the $3 trillion global fashion industry that uses degenerative agricultural practices, exploits laborers and publishes advertising that makes their customers feel inferior when they aren't wearing the latest style.

These problems cannot be fixed overnight, but when people vote with their pocketbook to support brands that take steps to clean their supply chain, we move closer to the solution. To avoid toxic chemicals and reduce environmental pollution associated with the washing and wearing of clothes, consider the following recommendations:

Opt for organic cotton, hemp, silk, wool and bamboo fabrics. While such items typically cost more than non-organic cotton and synthetics, buying fewer items will allow you to spend more on each item. On the upside, higher quality organic items tend to last far longer with proper care, so you get your money's worth in the end.

Opt for items colored with nontoxic, natural dyes when possible. Businesses investing in organic farming and natural dyes include PACT (undergarments and loungewear), Boll & Branch (bed linens, blankets and towels), Jungmaven (organic hemp and cotton T-shirts), Industry of All Nations (clothing) and many others.

Consider garments labeled with the OEKO-TEX Standard 100 label. This indicates the fabric has been tested by an independent laboratory and found to be free of harmful levels of more than 100 substances, including azo dyes, phthalates, heavy metals, pesticides and allergenic dyes.

Avoid screen printed items, as they typically contain phthalates.

Look for the Bluesign System Certification,26 which tells you the item has been manufactured with a minimal amount of hazardous chemicals, or none. Avoid trademarked technical fabrics, as most are coated with chemicals that will eventually wash out.

Be mindful of when and how you wash synthetic clothing. Wash synthetic clothing as irregularly as possible using a mild detergent. Line dry instead of putting them in the dryer. The heat and agitation will break down fibers.

Handwashing or using the gentle cycle with cold water will also minimize the shedding of fibers, as will using a front loading washing machine. Avoid fabric softeners and dryer sheets. They leave a film on the fabric that blocks the wicking ability of the fiber.

Install a microfiber filter on your washing machine.

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1, 22, 23 The Guardian, July 29, 2017
  • 2 Becoming Minimalist, 25 Surprising Stats that Reveal How Much We Really Own
  • 3 PBS, June 7, 2016
  • 4 Forbes, January 15, 2015
  • 5 Textile Exchange, Textile Chemicals
  • 6 OEcotextiles, Chemicals Used in Textile Processing
  • 7 Greenpeace, Toxic Threads
  • 8 The Guardian, June 29, 2017
  • 9 The Guardian, April 25, 2013
  • 10 Human Rights Watch, April 22, 2015
  • 11 Post Magazine, June 11, 2016
  • 12 Aljazeera America, September 9, 2015
  • 13 Verite, October 2014
  • 14 Environmental Science and Technology, 2011;45(21):9175
  • 15 Outside, June 20, 2016
  • 16 Greenpeace, The Trash Vortex
  • 17 NPR, February 6, 2017
  • 18 Microfiber Pollution and the Apparel Industry, Project Findings
  • 19 Gulf News, August 7, 2017
  • 20 Marine Pollution Bulletin, November 2016;112(1-2):39
  • 21 Project Earth, June 22, 2016
  • 24 PBS, June 7, 2016
  • 25 Regeneration International, Care What You Wear
  • 26 BlueSign