More than a third of all microplastics released into the oceans are from synthetic textiles used in the fashion industry, according to a new report.
Each time an item of clothing is washed, up to 700,000 microscopic fibres make their way into the oceans where they can be swallowed by sea life, becoming part of the food chain and potentially ending up on consumers’ plates, The Institution of Mechanical Engineers has warned.
Research by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), cited in the report, calculated that 34.8 per cent of releases of microplastics in the oceans are due to the laundry of synthetic textiles.
The report – entitled Engineering Out Fashion Waste – called on the government and the fashion industry to incentivise the development of more environmentally-friendly fibres and tackle textile-related plastic waste as «a matter of urgency».
Annual growth in global demand for clothing is projected to increase from 1.5 per cent in 2016 to between 3.5 and 4.5 per cent by the end of 2018 and is likely to continue to grow, according to analysis by consultancy firm McKinsey & Company released earlier this year.
Estimates show there are 20 new pieces of clothing manufactured per person each year and that consumers are buying 60 per cent more clothes than in 2000.
However, consumers can still play a role in mitigating the environmental impact of washing polyester fabrics by changing their own behaviour and taking greater care of their clothes.
The Institution of Mechanical Engineers is urging consumers to wash clothes at lower temperature, use mesh laundry bags to catch threads, install filters on washing machine waste pipes, and rely less on tumble dryers in order to reduce the amount of microplastic released.
But Aurelie Hulse, lead author of the report, argued the fashion industry also has to «fundamentally rethink the way clothes are manufactured, right down to the fibres that are used».
She said the focus should be on ensuring that garments «don’t fall apart at the seams», «that they can be recycled after being worn for many years», and that fabrics should be designed «not to shed microfibres when washed».
The report also highlights how the mass production of clothes results in extensive energy use, water use, and pollution.
In 2015, the fashion industry produced 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent – more emissions than international flights and maritime shipping combined, according to the study.
It also details how some textiles are more energy-intensive than others with nylon, acrylic and polyester topping the list in terms of CO2 emissions.
Excessive dying and treatment of clothes during the manufacturing process accounts for 17 to 20 per cent of all industrial pollution, according to the World Bank.
The Institution of Mechanical Engineers report also found that three-fifths of all clothing produced is sent to landfill or incinerated within a year of being made, in part because of limited recycling options to recover fibres.
But the waste does not only happen at the end of an item’s lifecycle but also in the production phases. In 2016 alone, the fashion industry’s supply chain waste was estimated to reach more than 800,000 tonnes.
The Institution of Mechanical Engineers urged the government to work with the fashion industry to tackle false sustainability claims and support the development of fibre recycling technologies.