Whats the Deal With Ocean Plastic?


The down-low on the fibre that wont break down.

Out of sight, out of mind - but not really.

A 2016 study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation tells us that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. What exactly does this mean? Well, our plastic waste is the equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2016). And out of all of this plastic, only 9% of it has ever been recycled. A large portion of this plastic pollution can be classified as microplastics.

What are microplastics, exactly? Theyre small pieces of plastic that measure 5mm or less in size. Microplastics appear in a number of ways. When larger pieces of plastic start to break down in nature, it breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces until eventually you are left with millions of pieces of microplastic. Synthetic textiles such as polyester are also made from plastic, and these textiles shed microplastics when washed. Dr Mark Browne first made these discoveries and estimated that 35% of microplastics in the ocean are released through washing  (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017). These pieces of plastic are often too small to be picked up by wastewater treatments, so theyre headed straight for the ocean. Scientists estimate that approximately 80% of all plastic pollution in the ocean is made up of microplastics, and they are being ingested by fish and other wildlife, which are in turn ingested by many of us. Its too early to know the effects of ingesting plastic on humans, but one thing is certain: sick fish, sick people.

There are some fashion brands doing fantastic things in this space. They are trying to tackle the plastic problem by recycling plastic fibres and reweaving them into new textiles. Recycled plastics have been a subject of focus for outerwear brands for some time, with Patagonia using PET from discarded water bottles since 1993. Now this tech is spilling into the mainstream and has been picked up by sportswear giants Adidas and Nike, as well as activewear brands Girlfriend Collective and P.E Nation. As commendable as these tech innovations are, it cant be ignored that recycled PET isnt the magic solution to this waste problem.

Brands like Patagonia and Girlfriend Collective bring attention to the fact that recycled plastic fibres still pose challenges, and offer products for  people to minimise their impact. Be sure to look beyond the marketing when coming across recycled materials; is this company realistic about the impact of plastic, even when recycled?

The fashion industry needs an overhaul. We need to embrace a circular economy where everything is used and nothing is discarded. Parley For The Oceans (the company that supplies Adidas with their collected ocean plastics) uses the framework AIR:

  • Avoid plastic wherever possible

  • Intercept plastic waste

  • Redesign the material itself

In terms of corporate action, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation reports that over 400 corporations have signed the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment. While these companies are not exclusively fashion or textiles, this list names 5 of the top 15 global retailers, including Walmart and Target. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation also have a fashion-specific global movement, dubbed Make Fashion Circular. Publicly listed participants include Burberry, H&M Group, Stella McCartney, and Kering. 

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