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Microplastics: The Linear Problem of Performance Wear

Take, Make, Dispose…

Textile manufacturing is almost completely linear, and as an industry, among the biggest polluters in the world. Large amounts of non-renewable resources are mined to produce clothes that are often used for only a short time. After that, most are sent to a landfill or incinerated.

This take-make-dispose model is damaging the environment in ways you may not have thought of as you shop for popular athleisure wear. For instance, total greenhouse gas emissions from producing 1.2 billion tons a year of textiles, are worse than emissions from all international flights and ocean shipping combined. The hazardous substances affect the health of workers and wearers alike. When washed, garments release plastic microfibers, contributing five hundred thousand tons of ocean pollution a year.

That’s why David Procyshyn, the founder of DoYogaWithMe, has begun a worldwide “Can You Practice Without Plastic?” campaign that has a goal of getting plastic, both in equipment and clothing, out of Yoga. “9 out of 10 Yoga practitioners in North America buy yoga clothing made with polyester and nylon”, says Procyshyn. “Almost 50% of Yoga Mats sold globally are made from PVC. These plastics are toxic and non-biodegradable, persisting as an environmental burden for hundreds of years. We have alternatives. Together we can create change now.”

But that change, surprisingly, doesn’t include simply doing a “Marie Kondo”purge and donating your offending plastic clothes. It’s more complicated than that. “If you choose to donate your clothes in order to rid yourself of polluting plastic, you’re really just passing the buck”, according to Procyshyn. “You may also be feeding into a second-hand clothing industry that has geopolitical implications. As much as 70% of globally donated clothing, according to Oxfam International, winds up in Africa where it can disrupt local textile economies. I think the best thing is to continue to wear your synthetic clothes or re-purpose them”.

You have heard in the news about problems with microplastics. Turns out it’s a concern to even wash performance wear. “Each washing machine load of synthetic laundry can release hundreds of thousands of synthetic microfibers, adding to the 5 trillion microplastics already in our oceans. It’s hard to overstate the problem of microplastics, and microfibers released during the use cycle of clothing are a significant contributor.” Procyshyn added, “Just keep in mind that washing synthetics is a major source of microplastic contamination, so you may want to look into some of the tools that have been created to reduce the amount of microfibers released from your washing machine, like the Guppyfriend Washing Bag. Once you’ve worn out your synthetics, then I it’s time to think about more sustainable options.”

Speaking of options, there is a debate about whether traditional cotton or polyester is worse for the environment. Producing cotton is far more water intensive, but producing polyester takes far more energy. They’re both very chemically intensive. Procyshyn points out that when you are actually using and washing the clothing, cotton may take more energy to dry, although you can mitigate this by simply hanging your clothes instead of tumble drying. In any case, traditional cotton is only slightly better, if at all. It’s time to look at organic products with less chemical burden, and to more sustainable crops like hemp.

One of the most interesting things about the Can You Practice Without Plastic campaign is the social component, friends holding their friends accountable for making a change. “It’s important for all of us to realize that when we buy clothes we are making decisions that have global environmental and political resonances. It’s hard to have that feeling when it’s just you by yourself, so being part of a community is huge. That’s one great thing about doing this within an existing yoga community– in theory folks already have an identity that supports both this initiative and the sense of togetherness necessary to make it really meaningful. We hope they will talk to one another and share ideas and solutions. It’s early days yet, but we are optimistic!”

It may be a little different approach, but if you are genuinely interested, you could try holding your friends and family accountable when it comes to PVC and other plastics. Ask them if they can “practice without plastic”. It’s about helping to make better choices for the world we all live in. Do you think it’s something worth a try? I certainly do.

Jeff Jacobs

Jeff Jacobs has been an expert in building brands and brand stewardship for 40 years, working in commercial television, Hollywood film and home video, publishing, and promotional brand merchandise. He’s a staunch advocate of consumer product safety and has a deep passion and belief regarding the issues surrounding compliance and corporate social responsibility. He retired as executive director of Quality Certification Alliance, the only non-profit dedicated to helping suppliers provide safe and compliant promotional products. Before that, he was director of brand merchandise for Michelin. You can find him volunteering as a Guardian ad Litem, traveling the world with his lovely wife, or enjoying a cigar at his favorite local cigar shop. Connect with Jeff on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram, or reach out to him at jacobs.jeffreyp@gmail.com.
Jeff Jacobs