Dr Antoinette Fionda-Douglas: Are microplastics in clothes killing us? | The Herald

He began with a piercing question that shattered the cheerful air: “Are our clothes killing us?” The room fell into a stunned silence. Glancing around, I saw fellow attendees sharing my bewilderment, unaware of the deep and complex issues that have since escalated into fast fashion’s most harrowing crisis: fossil fashion.

Horrifyingly, the answer to his question is a resounding yes, and in countless ways. The sheer breadth of this crisis is almost too depressing to detail, yet awareness is crucial for change. We must educate ourselves, make informed decisions, and hold retailers accountable.

The stark reality is we are draping ourselves in plastic. Many of our clothes are made from fabrics derived from fossil fuels: oil and gas, including synthetics like polyester, polyamides, nylon, and acrylics.

According to the Changing Markets Foundation, a staggering 69% of annual clothing production is fossil fashion, with projections indicating this will rise to 73% by 2030. To put this in perspective, polyester production has increased ninefold over the past 50 years, largely because it costs half as much as cotton.

The synthetic fibre industry consumes an amount of oil equivalent to the yearly oil consumption of Spain while polyester production alone generates emissions comparable to 180 coal-fired power plants each year, as reported by the Fossil Fuel Fashion campaign.

This relentless production of cheap, synthetic clothing is exacerbating our environmental crisis.

The fashion industry is responsible for up to 10% of global emissions, surpassing even the emissions from shipping and aviation combined. For real change, we must confront these uncomfortable truths and act decisively.

With the relentless growth in synthetic production, our wardrobes are becoming reservoirs of oil-based products and, with them, micro and nano plastics infiltrate our lives. This era is now ominously dubbed the “plasticene” era. Aidan Charron, biology director of the End Plastics Initiative at earthday.org, starkly states: “Plastics have permeated every aspect of our lives like an epidemic. Microplastics are impossible to avoid.”

The most alarming aspect is the mounting evidence of the negative health impacts of these synthetics. While the full extent of the health risks from microplastic exposure remains unclear, evidence suggests plastics, microplastics, and additive chemicals pose serious threats, especially to babies and infants.

Microplastics have been found to bioaccumulate in major organs including the brain, the placenta, and even in dairy and breast milk. Nano plastics can breach the blood-brain barrier, raising profound health concerns. These tiny invaders are linked to higher rates of miscarriage, male infertility, and certain cancers.

A widely publicised study by Birmingham University researchers last year revealed beyond inhalation, our sweat can absorb toxic chemicals from microplastics.

There is an urgent need for more rigorous research and safety checks, especially for online sales of very cheap products. Moreover, we must abandon the delusion that clothes made from recycled plastic bottles, or a smattering of recycled polyester, are panaceas for our problems. Real change demands comprehensive action, informed decisions, and holding fashion giants accountable for the hidden costs of fast fashion.

The final nail in the coffin of plastic fast fashion is the staggering waste it generates. Consumers are purchasing more than ever before, with the average customer buying 60% more than 15 years ago and an estimated 150 billion new items being produced every year. This not only devalues clothing but also creates an enormous amount of waste.

Globally, this waste amounts to approximately 144 million tonnes of clothing waste being discarded annually. This is equivalent to filling the Glasgow Hydro 2,975 times. This is exacerbated by the fact the Global North often sells, donates, and dumps this waste onto the Global South.

These cheaply made products, often produced in poor conditions in the Global South, pollute their local environments while the Global North retains the profits.

When these synthetic products, which take around 400 years to decompose, are discarded, they are dumped back in the Global South, impacting vulnerable communities ill-prepared for the climate crisis.

These mountains of landfilled synthetic clothes release greenhouse gases, and leach toxic chemicals and dyes into the groundwater, severely impacting health. This practice has been rightfully described as “waste colonialism”.

Ultimately, fashion is fuelling the “plasticene” era, with synthetic fibres and plastics becoming the fossil fuel industry’s cash cow, expected to account for up to 95% of future oil demand growth.
So, where do we go from here? We must change this narrative. The IPCC, IEA and UN Secretary-General are all calling for a reduction in fossil fuels to stay below the 1.5-degree threshold.

Textiles and fashion are not explicitly mentioned in the UNEP “Resolution to End Plastic Pollution Worldwide” by 2024, but there is hope for a UN treaty based on legally-binding global rules and comprehensive circular economy approach. The final round of negotiations are due later this year.

The UN also has 16 bills under consideration, addressing design, waste management, corporate reporting, and microplastics, with the aim of transforming the fashion industry
by 2030.

We need to fully recognise that fossil fashion is nearly impossible to recycle and contaminates our bodies and natural environments with plastic microfibres. When these products leave our wardrobes there is no “away” when we “give or throw away” unwanted synthetic clothing. The sad fact is it ends up posing a huge threat to communities in the Global South, where enormous volumes of clothing are dumped and burned.

If governments and big businesses are dragging their feet, it’s up to us to demand change. Vote, revolt, and make your voice heard through your purchases: stop buying plastic-based clothing and protect the health of yourself and your loved ones.

As a fashion designer and academic, I am ashamed to admit it has taken me 15 years to fully grasp the severity of this issue. Breaking the industry’s toxic love affair with fossil fashion won’t be easy but we must act now. The future of our planet and our health depends on it. n

Dr Antoinette Fionda-Douglas is co-founder of Beira, and assistant professor at Heriot-Watt University