Shades of Green: Leisure Suit Legacy

How does an active mom avoid synthetic fibers?

Is there an environmental menace hiding in your laundry? (Photo credit: Sean McGrath, flickr)

Last month I talked about how our family started to tackle the plastic in our home. I have to admit I was feeling pretty good about the changes we’d made. We had gotten into a groove, remembering our reusable bags at the grocery store, keeping pantry items stored in glass containers, and even convincing our preschooler that she didn’t need individually packaged snacks. I felt like I’d made a real dent in our own family’s contribution to plastic waste.

Then I stepped into my closet and got a reality check: Clothing made from synthetic materials like polyester, nylon, acrylic and spandex were also plastic. And it was recently discovered that washing clothes made of these fibers creates something called microfibers, tiny plastic particles that make their way into water sources every time we run the washer. The threads may be small, but more and more of them are making their way into our rivers, streams and oceans. And the more a garment is washed, the more fibers it loses.

My wardrobe was full of the stuff. I’m a mom, I run marathons, and until very recently I worked from home — I wear synthetic materials most of the time. All of those fitness wear brands are marketed to people like me. That’s right, my beloved sports bras, fleece jackets and even my yoga pants are also a part of the plastic problem.

More and more microfibers are making their way into our rivers, streams and oceans.

Then I took a peek at the clothes in my husband’s drawer. His favorite hiking shorts, nylon; his beloved festival t-shirt, a poly blend. Even my daughter’s closet had a few offenders, namely her teeny tiny polyester soccer uniform and mini yoga pants made from lycra. Our closets had more synthetics than a leisure suit factory, and it’s not just our house that suffers from a polyester overload. These types of materials make up a huge share of textiles.

At first I thought I’d found a solution by purchasing clothes that were made from recycled plastics. Flashy, greenwashed advertising convinced me I was doing the planet a solid by buying clothes made from fabric that used to be water bottles. After all, I wasn’t contributing to new waste — I was keeping those bottles out of the landfill. But, unfortunately, that warm fuzzy feeling was short lived. Recycled plastic materials still create microfibers when they’re washed. To be fair, I should have known better — buying more of the problem material isn’t a viable solution.

So I tried to give up synthetic clothing cold turkey. We started checking the labels at our favorite kids’ used clothing store, and I committed to wearing natural fibers as I headed back to the office for work.

I did not look this happy during my cotton-clad run. (Photo credit: Ross Comer)

But I wasn’t even sure it was possible to nix the plastics in my athletic garb — everyone I knew wore the same synthetics I did. I took a trip to my local athletic wear store but came up woefully short on options produced with natural fibers. So the next day I decided to go for a run wearing an old cotton t-shirt. Three miles and a 10-pound, sweat-soaked shirt later, I realized that switching to natural fibers entirely was a non-starter.

I was feeling pretty helpless. And it didn’t appear that there were straightforward solutions around.

That said, there are some stop-gap fixes to reduce the microfibers coming from my laundry. I try to wash my synthetic clothing less frequently. Unfortunately, because it’s made to collect sweat, it gets dirty faster. I also try to buy quality products when I can afford them. This helps reduce the demand for newly produced materials because I can wear them longer, and some studies have shown that higher quality synthetics may shed less. There’s also a bag you can put your athletic clothing in while you wash them to catch the microfibers that are released or a ball you throw in with the wash that does the same thing.

But this problem is much bigger than my athleisure wardrobe, and we aren’t going to be able to put the world’s synthetic materials in a bag to solve the issue. Polyester has been around since the 50s, and clothing made from synthetic materials makes up the majority of the market.

We need to push for some big, industry-wide changes to help get away from our plastic addiction.

Some athletic clothing brands are beginning to research the problem, but they’ve been slow to act — all while plankton ingest the tiny fibers and fish die from our plastic pollution. We need to push for some big, industry-wide changes to help get away from our plastic addiction. Through activism and science, we were able to eliminate microbeads — those tiny plastic beads you used to find in some soaps and face wash. The same needs to happen to tackle microfibers.

But we don’t need to wait for the industry to change to make an effort to consume less. Buying fewer items that last longer can push designers to change disposable fashion trends and start reducing the number of plastic fibers being created in the first place.

Jessica Herrera is a media specialist for the Center for Biological Diversity.