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Plastics in our clothes becoming new challenge for waste managers

A significant portion of our fabrics—over 60%—are composed of plastic materials. These synthetic textiles, once discarded,

By Ground report
New Update
Plastics in our clothes becoming new challenge for waste managers

A significant portion of our fabrics—over 60%—are composed of plastic materials. These synthetic textiles, once discarded, find their way into our landfills, becoming a predominant form of waste. As the third most common type of refuse in these dumps, they represent a colossal challenge for urban waste management systems, which are already grappling with the complexities of handling ever-increasing volumes of refuse.

The Anil Agarwal Dialogue, an annual gathering hosted by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), brings together over a hundred journalists and experts specializing in environmental and developmental issues.

During the event, the “2024 State of India’s Environment” report was unveiled, shedding light on the environmental implications of the widespread use of plastic in textiles. Atin Biswas, the programme director of solid waste management and circular economy at CSE, remarked on the affordability of synthetic fibers like polyester, acrylic, and nylon, which has led to their prevalence in the market. However, he cautioned that the environmental cost of these materials is significant, affecting all stages from production to disposal.

Consider the vast number of individuals laundering their garments daily and the sheer volume of clothing in circulation. Imogen Napper, a marine scientist at the University of Plymouth, who contributed to a pivotal 2016 study, highlights the ubiquity of plastic fiber shedding: “Even as we simply move about, our clothes are constantly releasing tiny fibers; it’s a pervasive issue.”

Globally, concerted efforts are underway to curtail the use of products that contribute to oceanic waste, such as plastic cups, shopping bags, and straws. In our quest to combat plastic pollution, it’s crucial to acknowledge the significant role our apparel plays in this environmental challenge, necessitating its inclusion in any comprehensive solution.

Plastics in textiles: cheap, costly

The dialogue’s agenda was centred around the escalating use of plastic fibers in the textile industry. With a staggering 60% of new garments being made from synthetic materials such as polyester, acrylic, and nylon, the dialogue highlighted the severe challenges this poses to solid waste management, particularly in urban settings. The issue is so pressing that textile waste is now identified as the third-largest contributor to landfill mass in city areas.

Fashion Brands Must Design for End of Life. Photo Credit: rawpixel.com

Atin Biswas told Ground Report, “Perhaps the most important reason for the popularity of plastic is that garments made from synthetic fibres -- polyester, acrylic, nylon etc -- are substantially cheaper than natural fabrics. While on the face of it, clothes made of plastics appear harmless, their infiltration into the textile industry is a cause for concern. These synthetic fabrics have a significant environmental impact during production, use and disposal.” 

Biswas pointed out the considerable carbon footprint associated with synthetic textiles, which is largely due to the reliance on fossil fuels in their production process. The textile industry is responsible for an estimated 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions, a figure that exceeds the combined emissions of all international flights and maritime shipping. If the current trends continue unchecked, the industry’s carbon emissions could see an increase of over 50% by the year 2030. Polyester, a common synthetic fabric, is particularly notorious for its greenhouse gas emissions, which are comparable to those produced by coal-fired power plants.

Plastic clothes production rapidly increases

Data from the World Bank reveals that plastic-based clothing accounts for a significant portion of the roughly 3 million tonnes of plastic produced annually. Synthetic fibers have come to dominate the fiber production market, constituting 69% of the total output. Since 1980, the production of plastic fibers has skyrocketed by nearly 900%, a growth trajectory that has been largely fueled by the fast fashion industry. This trend has led to a consumer culture where clothes are bought and discarded at an unprecedented rate.

Siddharth G Singh, a program manager at CSE, emphasized the dire environmental consequences of plastic fibers. Unlike natural fibers, synthetic materials are not biodegradable and can persist in the environment for extended periods. The washing of synthetic clothes leads to the release of microplastics, which contribute to pollution in marine and freshwater ecosystems, as well as on land, posing risks to wildlife and potentially impacting human health.

More than ever, our clothes are made of plastic. Photo Credit: Hippopx

Singh called for a fundamental shift towards sustainable practices within the fashion industry. He advocated for the classification of polyester fabric waste as plastic waste, which would subject it to the regulations that govern plastic management. India has robust laws in place for managing plastic waste, as outlined in the Municipal Solid Waste Rules of 2016, but textile waste remains largely unregulated.

To bridge this regulatory gap, Singh proposed the implementation of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes for polyester. These schemes would hold brand owners accountable for the end-of-life disposal of their products. EPR frameworks are already in place for other sectors, such as plastics, tires, batteries, and electronic waste, aiding in the achievement of waste collection and recycling targets.

Synthetic textiles harm environment, action needed

In addition to the discussions at the Anil Aggarwal Dialogue, recent studies and reports have shed light on the broader implications of plastic waste in clothing. The World Economic Forum has highlighted the need for a circular economy in fashion, where sustainability is not just a trend but a core principle of the industry.

The European Environment Agency has reported on the environmental and climate impacts of synthetic textiles, emphasizing the potential for developing a circular economy value chain.

Plastic waste from clothing requires a collective effort and systemic change. Photo Credit: PickPik

Furthermore, the United Nations Environment Programme has identified fashion as a major contributor to global wastewater and carbon emissions, with every second seeing a garbage truck’s worth of textiles landfilled or incinerated.

These findings underscore the urgency of adopting sustainable practices in the fashion industry. Strategies such as improving the biodegradability of synthetic fibers, promoting the use of recycled PET fibers, and exploring alternative materials are being researched and developed. The concept of Extended Producer Responsibility is gaining traction as a policy tool to incentivize better textile design and reduce overall waste.

So what can we do about it?

Addressing the issue of plastic waste from clothing requires a collective effort and systemic change. As environmental scientist Imogen Napper suggests, “Solutions must be accessible for everyone, not just a luxury for the environmentally conscious.” The affordability of synthetic clothing makes it a staple for many, but its environmental impact cannot be ignored.

Mark Browne, an environmental scientist, emphasizes the role of technology in mitigating this issue: “We need washing machines designed to reduce fiber emissions.” Innovations like fiber filters could be a key part of the solution.

The textile industry also has a part to play. As Cesa notes, “Manufacturers could create fabrics that shed fewer fibers, and clothing companies could prioritize their use.” Meanwhile, consumers can contribute by adopting mindful habits: “Buy fewer clothes, and wash only when necessary.”

Together, these measures can lead to a more sustainable future, reducing the environmental footprint of our wardrobe choices.

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