Why recycled polyester is good for the environment despite the issue with microplastic in the oceans

Meeting other people who are equally passionate about making positive changes to the norms in the fashion industry is always exciting. Recently I had a memorable encounter with someone who is hugely influential in the UK when it comes to driving such change and we ended up having an interesting discussion about the use of recycled polyester and how eco-friendly this fibre actually is.

I am a big advocate of circular economy in fashion; to reduce, reuse and recycle resources over and over again for different purposes. This includes using recycled polyester (RPET) made from recycled plastic bottles. In my view, we have already introduced a certain amount of plastic into the world and given that it will take 100s if not 1,000s of years to degrade, reusing it for other purposes instead of sending it to landfill or dumping it in the sea seems like a sensible idea.

The woman I was talking to was of a different opinion. She reminded me of the X tonnes of microplastic particles drifting around in the oceans and impacting fish, other animals and ourselves negatively– and how some of these microplastic particles are a result of synthetic clothes shedding tiny bits of plastic every time they are washed in the washing machine.
Unfortunately, our conversation was interrupted before we could conclude or identify common ground and it compelled me to put my thoughts down on the page, which I would like to share with you.

Just to be absolutely clear from the beginning: I am in complete agreement that microplastic particles in the oceans is a serious issue that needs to be dealt with urgently. And I am sure that anyone who watched the documentary ‘Drowning in Plastic’ on the BBC this week will concur.
Having said that, it is unfortunately not as simple as saying that if we only wear clothes made from natural fibres, then the world will become a better place – as someone suggested on the radio this morning.

The reality is that there are very few fibres that are truly eco-friendly and ethical; manmade or natural. In fact, I can only think of hemp and organic linen, and both fibres have their limits in terms of style and functionality.
The rest of the fibres that we are currently using in the fashion industry all have some kind of unsustainable element to them.

As an example, conventional cotton is a big contributor to sea pollution caused by fertilisers and pesticides, and according to a recent article in the Economist called ‘Clearing the Waves’, the damage done by fertilisers in the sea is worth $200-800bn and far bigger than the damage done by microplastic particles at around $13bn.
Organic cotton is far better, but still uses vast quantities of water and land. Wool is an equally heavy user of water, as well as detergents and energy – not to mention the ethical issues surrounding wool. Silk is fairly eco-friendly but far from ethical unless it is Ahimsa silk. And bamboo, often hailed one of the most sustainable fibres, relies on significant amounts of chemicals in its preparation, making it one of the major culprits when it comes to pollution.

As you can see, there is a huge opportunity for businesses to develop new fibres, yet there is still some way to go before truly sustainable fibres become available to the mass market. Until then, it makes sense to use the ones that have the least negative impact on the environment in combination with other methods to curb pollution.
If you disregard the microplastic particle issue, RPET is up there amongst the eco-friendliest materials, using fewer natural resources in the making than most other fibres, and I still believe it is a good alternative to conventional polyester, polyamide, acrylic, viscose and conventional cotton.

So how can we minimise the impact of microplastic waste? Lots of research is already being done in this area in terms of developing better filters for washing machines and waste water treatment plants, and it is only a matter of time before we will see new inventions on the market. Among the washing machine manufacturers and other big players there are also some smaller inventors with great ideas such as Adam Root, who already have a patent pending on a filter.

Meanwhile at VILDNIS HQ we are currently testing a washbag called the Gubbyfriend. It’s developed by a group of surfers and nature lovers, who are also behind the non-profit organisation STOP MICRO WASTE, and it works by catching any shedded fibres from clothes during washing – genius!

If you are worried about microplastic, then I can highly recommend investing in a Gubbyfriend bag. €29.75 is a small price to protect the environment :-)
Other things you can do to minimise the microplastic waste from the washing machine is to use a front-loading washing machine, wear your clothes for longer between washes and wash at lower temperatures – and tell your friends to do the same.

I hope I get a chance to continue the discussion about RPET vs microplastic in the ocean someday with the above-mentioned inspiring industry leader. It is conversations like this that help drive change through highlighting both the issues and the opportunities. Only by seeing things from different perspectives and weighing up pros and cons can we reach the ideal conclusion/solution.

Thank you for listening – and feel free to comment below. I would love to hear your thoughts!



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