Everything you Need to Know about Plastic Fabrics, Why Most Synthetic Fibers Suck, and What You Can Do About It

by - Sunday, February 17, 2019

Everything you Need to Know about Plastic Fabrics, Why Most Synthetic Fibers Suck, and What You Can Do About It

You may have heard some bad things about synthetic fabrics. You may have heard our wardrobes are increasingly made of plastic. What you may not know is that this is a huge problem. Probably bigger than plastic straws, but you don't hear nearly as much about it. Let me tell you everything you need to know.

What's your Problem with Polyester? 

Synthetic fabrics had a bad reputation for a long time because they were uncomfortable or cheesy. Now, they are barely detectable and they are EVERYWHERE. They are in most of the clothes at Old Navy, Target or anywhere you shop. They are in all stretchy pants and fluffy fleeces. They are in most clothing sold now, mostly because companies have to make their clothes as cheaply as possible, to sell them as cheaply as possible, to keep up with fast fashion.

They are also exceptionally terrible for the environment. Here's why:

1. The tiny plastic fibers that make up these fabrics shed off every time you wash them. The fibers are tiny, about the same size as glitter, but thousands (like hundreds of thousands) of them shed off in the washing machine.
2. They then flow out of your washing machine into nearby water sources.
3. The water moves them to every corner of every water source in the world. These fibers are found even in the deepest and most difficult to reach corners humans can study.

Now, imagine this is happening, every day, in the billions. These fibers are so small that they aren't being caught by filters along the way. There are now so many of them in our oceans that they outnumber the stars in the sky.

So imagine enough glitter to fill a room in your house going into the ocean every day. It sounds fun, but it isn't.

So, What's the Big Deal? 

In a way, these fiber can seem harmless because they are just so tiny. They can't choke wildlife and you can't see them in epic pile ups of trash. But it's their smallness that makes them so dangerous.

There is no way to clean them up, and they are absolutely everywhere. Have you ever tried to clean up a glitter spill before? It's terrible, and you are going to be finding glitter for the rest of your life. It's like that, but on epic scales.  They have found these microplastics in salt, in the deepest and darkest corners of the ocean they can record, in most sea life, and in human poop. You ingest these tiny plastics everyday.

This is a bigger deal than it seems, because we know plastic is poison that does not belong in our bodies. It has been linked to major hormonal changes, to endocrine system problems, and even to many cancers. And the damage plastic does is barely studied, because plastic lobbies fight against it. Some day, our children will gasp in horror what we were thoughtlessly shooting into their water, because this could have a life-ending effect on humans AND wildlife.

So we need to stop them. If your bathtub was overflowing, the first step isn't to clean it up. It's to turn off the tap. Our waters are overflowing in these tiny plastic terrors. Step One is to turn off the tap. 

You can help stop synthetic fibers from flooding our waters and bodies with plastic, and we have all sorts of information to point you down the paths that count. Let's do this.

How Do I know which Fabrics are made of Plastic? 

The first step we can all take is to stop buying plastic-based fabrics, but to do that, we have to know what to look for. Before we go further, let's learn about our fibers:

Polyester- Oil-based, PLASTIC
Nylon- Oil-based, PLASTIC
Spandex (also known as Lycra or Elastene)- Oil-Based, PLASTIC

To be clear, STOP buying anything made of Polyester, Nylon, or Spandex. If it is another name you don't recognize, just look it up. Anything that is oil-based is literally garbage.

So are all synthetics out? No! I have good news- some synthetic fibers still have a relatively positive (and low waste) impact.

Rayon- Wood fibers, considered a "semi-synthetic"
Tencel- Made of Eucalyptus Trees, sustainable practices
Viscose- Made of Trees, larger impact then Tencel, but still pretty great
Modal- Made of beechwood trees from sustainably farmed forests. The yield is twice as high as cotton; I think modal is a fabric of the future.

So what kinds of fabrics do you want to buy? Any of these plant-based synthetics, bamboos, hemps, and cottons. There are tons of good options here, but I guarantee if you check your closet, the plastic-based stuff may be taking over.

If you are looking for activewear, we did our research and found the companies that make it with the lowest plastic content. Check out all the places worth buying leggings and activewear from here.

Yep, This All Sucks. What Can I Do to Help? 

A lot. The fact is that this issue, though deeply important, is mostly still ignored. We need to raise awareness, put pressure on the companies making this problem to solve it, demand our representatives legislate to end the manufacture of these toxic materials, and just bite into the appeal of this stuff. It's a lot to do, and a lot of it depends on public perception, so we definitely need your help.

Join the Right Groups

It can be easy to kind of let these things fall off our radar, but the best first step is finding a place to be engaged (because often they just need signatures or a phone call- and you can do that). The Story of Stuff is one of the groups taking this problem on. You can join their facebook group here to keep up with what is developing.

Go Look at your Closet

This isn't a sexy or appealing problem to solve, mostly because our closets are all already LOADED with synthetic items we likely love (myself included, no judgement). A conservative guess is that 50% of the items in your closet have plastic fabrics in them.

So the first goal is to be more aware of what you have, and (as much as you can) STOP wearing those items! Then, as things need replaced, stop buying anything synthetic! Every time you need to replace something, pick a natural fabric option instead. In a few years, you will have an all natural wardrobe.

Where to Find The Info- Most companies put the fabric information on the care tag on the inside of an item, usually toward the bottom. If you are in stores where you buy clothes new, the tag sometimes has the info as well. On websites,

Stop Buying Things Made from Plastic Fabrics... Even Recycled and Secondhand

Stop buying synthetic fabrics in your own life, for yourself, for gifts, for kids. Get in the habit of checking the tags, and if it has plastic, don't buy it. This is even true if the clothes are secondhand or recycled! Stores like Thred Up have the fabric information listed, so you can still avoid it there too (though I know I have bought a few dresses with synthetic fabrics in them on there).

Everyone note, this is the ONLY time that I think recycled and secondhand are not viable options. In fact, the older and looser this fabric is, the more plastic it sheds (it's why cheap and synthetic clothes last such a short time). Lots of companies have tried turning recycled plastic bottles into clothes, but that just takes a recyclable, cleanable item and turns it into something that can't be cleaned OR recycled. Not good.

It is 1000 times better to buy a brand new pair of leggings with low plastic content than to buy secondhand 100% synthetic ones. This may seem really hard to do, but I promise way better options exist. Check out this list of leggings and active wear with much lower plastic content.

Write the Clothing Companies You Love and Tell Them to STOP

Once you start looking for plastic fabrics, you will notice that the brands you love use them all the time! How freaking annoying! Write them and tell them to stop. The more they hear the feedback that consumers will not buy plastic-fabrics, the more likely they are to just quit using them. But that requires a LOT of feedback, so we all need to speak up. Just post on their page, their twitter, or call them out on your own page. Here is an example post, so you can just copy and paste.

I used to love your clothes, because (put your reason here). Now, I have noticed that many of your products use plastic-based fabrics, and I won't buy your products until this stops.

Plastic-based synthetic fabrics are shedding millions of plastic fibers into our oceans everyday. Your choice to cut costs and use plastic fibers is a huge part of the problem, and it is making our water more toxic everyday. You have the power to stop this flow of plastic by refusing to use synthetic fabrics. When that happens, I will buy your clothes again!

Sincerely, (your name here)

See!? It doesn't have to be anything epic. Not buying plastic fabrics is great. Telling the company why you have stopped giving them your money is even better. They will keep going unless they have a reason to stop. Let them know losing your business is one of the reasons.

Reach out to Washing Machine Manufacturers While You are at it

It is likely that our best chance for filtering this plastic out of the water is from the washing machines themselves. Washing machine companies are also part of the problem, and they could really be a hero here if they figured out a filter that kept the plastic out of the water. You can write them and ask that this is something they work on.

There are a few products claiming to filter plastic fibers out already on the market, but as far as I can see, none of them are particularly beloved. But I will keep an eye out. If one is really doing the job, we all know what holiday gifts we are buying this year!

Push your Representatives to Ban the Sale of Plastic-based Synthetic Fabrics

This is coming, but the sooner it happens, the better. It needs your help, as this is more pressing than single use plastics, but barely talked about. Start calling representatives who claim to care about the environment and demand that plastic-based fabrics should no longer be manufactured or sold.

Make plastics (including plastic fabrics) an issue in coming elections, and push your representatives now to participate in the Green New Deal and to fight for other legislation. Ask them to ban the sale of plastic fabrics, because the faster we can stop them, the more likely our kids can have somewhat drinkable water! The stakes are pretty high, so let them know it.

Just Talk to Your Friends About It

Things are starting to change and people are becoming more and more aware of how poisonous plastic is to our planets and our bodies. People care more about the environment. Even 5 years ago, our vision of someone who cares about the environment was a certain hempy, crunchy kind of individual. Now it is anyone and everyone. Including you. People are way more likely to listen to their peers. So bring it up! Tell your friends on your next shopping trip or tell your mom how you are trying to get plastic out of your wardrobe.

This may seem little, but it normalizes caring about these things, and there are still LOTS of people in this world who genuinely have no idea what a big deal this is. No one can solve a problem that they don't know exists, so every time you speak up, you are changing the world.

Everything you Need to Know about Plastic Fabrics, Why Most Synthetic Fibers Suck, and What You Can Do About It

Need more info? Want some ideas on where to shop instead? Check out the Little Green Dress for eco-friendly and ethical fashion ideas.

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  1. This is very interesting. What are safe ways to dispose of the clothing items you already have?

  2. This is very interesting. We are trying to go green and I know fabrics were an issue but now I am a lot clearer on what the problem is.

  3. I hate most synthetic, even model gives me the willies to touch. I can handle tencel, but my favorite fabric of all time is wool. A good wool wear so well, is so breathable, requires minmal washing ( most wools handle machine washing and drying flat). I have a wool blend skirt I made 20 years ago and it is still going strong.

  4. So well put. Though instead of throwing out everything made of plastic that you have (also a waste), you can wash it using bags that trap the givers. Not ideal and for sure natural fibres are better also for your skin... but if you do own some things, it is an option

  5. I don't even know where to start here. Here I thought I was doing the planet- AND budget-friendly thing by trying to get my girls' clothing secondhand as much as possible. But with our spring consignment season almost here, I now have incentive to read the clothing tags even more carefully! Am sharing this to my FB page!

  6. Wow this post is very informative. I had no idea about the difference of fabrics not until I came across with this article. Thanks for sharng.

  7. We prefer things like cotton clothing, but there are so many synthetics out there. When I go to buy socks, it's difficult to find ones with a lot of cotton in the blend. Not a fan of synthetics! Plus my daughter has eczema, and things like fleece make her sweaty and irritate her skin.

  8. Wow, I had no idea! This is about 90% of my wardrobe... ugh. Thank you for enlightening me!

  9. This is a good read and had no idea that it's still plastic. Thank you for the heads-up. We will definitely try to avoid buying these. So far, we're trying bamboo fibers since they say its more eco-friendly.

  10. I had no idea about any of this!



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