Micro-fibre pollution: why what you wear matters

Whilst pollution from plastic bags, coffee cups and microbeads has come under intense scrutiny in recent months, another microplastic pollutant is passing under our noses on a daily basis. This pesky plastic is barely detectable to the eye, yet is polluting our ocean ecosystems at a terrifying rate. It is synthetic microfibres, and it’s a macro problem.

These microfibers come from the synthetic clothes and textiles so prevalent in daily life. It’s been estimated that 700,000 fibres could be released into wastewater on an average wash and spin load. Whilst natural fibres like wool and cotton are biodegradable, synthetic fibres like polyester and nylon are not. These fibres are manmade from fossil fuels so, not only are the CO2 emissions from polyester production 3x that of cotton, but the fibres hang around for a loooong time.

Take a look at the clothes you’re wearing now, what are they made of? Mine are mostly cotton (it’s a lounging kind of day), but my Sweaty Betty yoga top is 50% Merino wool, 34% Tencel, 16% Polyamide. It’s an interesting example because this includes all three of the fibre types; wool is natural, Tencel is a regenerated fibre from wood cellulose and Polyamide is manmade, very similar to polyester. In fact, polyester can be found in 60% of our clothing and it’s easy to see why; polyester is cheap, durable, crease-resistant and easy care. In some ways it’s more environmentally-friendly to produce than cotton because it has a lower water footprint and there’s no need for pesticides, but it does have a bigger carbon footprint.

Despite polyester’s useful properties I tend to prioritise natural fibres over synthetics because they are exactly that – natural. I have been aware of the ability to release microfiber pollution through the process of washing our clothes but it wasn’t until I spoke to Gintare from Amberoot that it really hit home. Gintare has a close affinity to nature and is passionate about reducing plastic pollution. Based in Brighton, UK, Gintare left a job in banking to set up a sustainable and ethical online clothing shop. Her goal is to encourage consumption behaviours that do not have a negative impact on the environment, other people or animals. Although she works with brands that emphasis holistic ethical work practices, the story behind Amberoot isn’t one of fairtrade or organic clothing per se, but instead is focused on shunning the pollution caused by synthetic fibres, turning instead back to natural ones. Natural fibres doesn’t mean just cotton and wool either; there is a growing list of exciting options from bamboo to orange fibre!

Gintare says: “The research regarding the microfiber effect on soil, air and health effects on humans is currently ongoing. There was some research regarding the health effects of inhaling microfibers and on health effects for soil and eventually us. But this is just very beginning, more studies are surely to come.”

The environmental impact of washing synthetic fibres has attracted a few studies but results are not conclusive. A study by the University of Plymouth for example found that more microfibers are released in the first four washes a new garment receives and that fabric composition and detergent choice also affect the amount of fibres released. Polyester-cotton mix consistently shed significantly fewer fibres than either polyester or acrylic. The addition of bio-detergent and fabric conditioner increased the numbers of fibres shed. Another study from earlier this year found that worn (old) fabrics shed more in the wash as did looser textile weaves.

Based on the research there are things you can do to limit your microplastic fibre footpoot:

1. If you need the performance of polyester, try poly-cotton mix (or something like my Sweaty Betty top) rather than 100% synthetic fibre.
2. Wash at a lower temperature. In the aforementioned study by Imogen Napper at Plymouth, washing at 40 degrees led to more fibres shed than at 30.
3. Try a GuppyFriend washing bag.
4. If you know a plumber, you could attach a filter system to your machine. It seems to me that manufacturers should be working towards this as standard. Maybe they are.
5. Look for natural fibres, care for them and wear them for years to come.

Amberoot is well worth a browse because Gintare has curated a range of beautiful brands, many of which were new to me. What’s particularly useful about the website is you can shop by accreditation (e.g. Fairwear, B Corp, PETA) as well as by brand. Buying natural, biodegradable fabrics means that you can avoid the pollution effects scientists are now discovering are caused by synthetic fibres. Amberoot stocks men’s and women’s clothes as well as home goods. I’m very tempted by the Motumo loose-fit linen dresses (see above)- yes they will need ironing, but I just wouldn’t wash it all that often! I also love the lingerie and nightwear by AmaElla and knitwear by Izzy Lane. The latter is knitted from the undyed wool of rescued sheep. If that doesn’t make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, I don’t know what will.

Post to Twitter

The Health Hazards Lurking in Sanitary Products

P1030028

I need to talk about tampons. Not the prettiest subject but that’s probably why we don’t talk about them very much. And why I haven’t thought about them very much.

Sanitary products have been around since the 1930s and women everywhere are forever grateful, but the materials they are made of have barely changed in that time. Conventional products are made of Rayon – the man-made fibre created from cellulose wood pulp (cue the slaying of many trees), non-organic cotton (bad for farmers, waterways and wildlife) and synthetic materials like polypropylene (non-biodegradable). That’s not to mention the widespread use of plastic tampon applicators that take 25 years to biodegrade, littering our seas in the meantime.

So I think it’s safe to say sanitary products are bad for the environment, but that’s not all. Conventional products are also treated with a whole host of nasties. These can include chlorine to increase absorbency and make the products white and chemical fragrance. Rayon and viscose fibres can shed in use, leaving behind dioxins that cling to the vaginal wall. Not something I want in my intimate parts. The World Health Organisation claims that dioxins are highly toxic, interfering with the immune system and hormonal balance. The crazy thing is there is no in-depth scientific research on the impact of using these sanitary products (or is it that surprising really?) but for those of us who like to avoid toxic chemicals wherever possible there are alternatives.

TOTM make organic tampons and sanitary towels, 100% free from pesticides, chemical fertilisers, perfume and bleach. They only use cardboard applicators and their products are 95% biodegradable. Healthier for the planet and the women using them, they offer a subscription service so you can have supplies sent straight to your door (or you can submit one-off orders). A box of 10 regular applicator tampons cost £2.80 – more expensive than cardboard applicator Tampax but about the same as their fanciest pearl compak.

I’m converted.

Go to www.totm.com

Post to Twitter

London’s First Pop Up Forest Comes to Seven Dials on International Car Free Day

tree

The Portas Review has been back in the spotlight recently as Mary faced MPs on the communities and local government select committee with an updated plan to save the British high street. With financial backing from the Department for Communities and Local Government, Portas helped to establish 27 “Portas Pilots” but now faces criticism that it was nothing more than a PR stunt for her television career and that little, if anything, has actually improved. High streets now fall on an extreme scale, where at one end we have empty towns with struggling shops and a total lack of investment and at the other end we have affluent market towns and pockets of London thriving on a culture of indies and coffee shops.

Covent Garden is in stark contrast to the Portas Pilot towns, yet the press release which landed in my inbox, and which I will now go on and tell you about, got me thinking about this extreme (North/South?) divide we have. So, 21st September is International Car Free Day and if you scurry along to Seven Dials on this day you will find a whole host of lovely things going on as Camden Council plays host to a one-of-a-kind pop-up forest to celebrate walking and cycling. Sixty trees will be temporarily plotted around the central dial monument in Covent Garden’s shopping village and the whole of Seven Dials will be transformed into a car-free haven. For one weekend only, you don’t have to choose shopping OR the great outdoors, you can do both. Shoppers – Camden Council are bringing the trees TO YOU.

Seven Dials

The initiative is to encourage people to walk and cycle more, using greener modes of travel to improve health and reduce pollution. No doubt the streets will be brought to life with face painting, floor art, and interactive activities. Camden Council will be showcasing their new “Air Quality Bubble Map” and Kings College London will be there with fun air quality activities and advice. It’s the perfect example of using the high street (if you can call Covent Garden that) in a different way, for fun, learning and social interaction.

Stores will also be offering one-off discounts and gifts. So who is this really for?
Once the day is over all trees will be moved and planted in new plots across the borough of Camden for people to enjoy on a permanent basis. All of this is good. I think I’m just hinting at something the Government really needs to consider their place on with initiatives like the Portas Review – is the economy of central importance over sustainability and wellbeing? Can we be using the high streets in different ways, ways which perhaps don’t generate revenue? Am I being idealist? Babbling? Probably.
You should go though, it sounds fun. I’ll be in the New Forest.

Post to Twitter