In this extract from How to Give up Plastic: Save the world one plastic bottle at a time, author Will McCallum gives us the lowdown on plastic and our clothes. You’ll be surprised by what he has to say.

It comes as a surprise to most people that the clothes they wear are one of the greatest sources of plastic in the ocean. Minuscule strands of clothing, normally made of nylon or polyester and much finer than a human hair, are shed from our clothes every time we wear them, wash them and, of course, when we throw them away. The rise of fast fashion means that as a cheap and easy‑ to‑use material, polyester makes up around 60 per cent of the clothing material we wear, with an estimated 61 million tonnes of synthetic fibres being manufactured in 2016 according to UN figures.

A report released in 2017 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature estimated that between 15 per cent and 31 per cent of all plastic pollution comes from microplastics. The authors estimated that an average person living in Europe is responsible for dumping the equivalent of 54 plastic shopping bags in the ocean each year. The figure for North America rises to 150 per person per year. The report goes on to explain that, globally, over a third of this plastic enters the ocean as a result of us washing our clothes.

At less than a millimetre long, the microfibres are so small they slip through our washing machine drainage systems. A fleece jacket could be responsible for releasing as many as 250,000 microfibres according to a study undertaken at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

I find it galling that as someone who enjoys spending time outdoors cycling and kayaking in the elements because I love nature, the equipment I use and the clothing I wear can be some of the most polluting. It is not ridiculous to ask how, if these fibres are so small, they are actually harming the ocean. The answer – as is so often the case with this fast-growing problem – is that we have yet to understand the true impact. What we do know is that although invisible to our naked eye, these synthetic fibres may still look like tasty treats to zooplankton such as krill, tiny shrimp-​like crustaceans. Animals like these form the base of the food chain in the ocean, being eaten in vast quantities by bigger zooplankton, fish and marine mammals like whales.

In this way microfibres can pass up the food chain, accumulating in huge quantities the further up you get, and eventually could even end up on our dinner plate. In addition to this, in the same way as larger plastics can block up the stomachs of birds and whales, microfibres can prevent other zooplankton like copepods from being able to digest the algae on which they depend.

What to do then? If these synthetic fabrics are so widespread and the pollution they cause largely unseen, a solution can be hard to imagine. Here are a few things that you can do to help stop such large quantities of microfibres entering the ocean.


Buying fewer clothes 

I know the feeling, the weather changes and you want the outfit to match or a zip breaks on your jeans and it’s easier to buy a cheap new pair. Clothes can be found so cheaply now that we often forget it is a relatively new phenomenon to be able to head out to the high street and buy them in large quantities on a whim, without necessarily considering the impact on the environment or the people who have made them.

Making an effort to reduce the amount of clothes you buy, either by repairing old ones or making do with last year’s colour scheme, is a simple, effective way to reduce the amount of microfibres in the environment (and save money at the same time!). The longer the clothes you already own stay in use, the kinder you are being to the environment.

Buying fewer new clothes 

New is not always nice for the environment. Next time you’re out shopping, try checking out charity shops and vintage stores for second-hand gems; after all, fashion comes in cycles. Also, although they are still synthetic and so would require the washing guidelines below, you could check out some of the clothes now on the market made using recycled plastic, such as Pharrell Williams’ line or any one of hundreds of small start-ups doing everything from high fashion to gym wear.

Buying fewer synthetic clothes

Before you purchase, have a look at the label to see what it’s made of. Where possible, see if you can opt for more natural materials like wool, cotton and silk. Unfortunately it’s true that these materials will often be more expensive, but the flipside is that well-​made clothes from natural materials should last a long time. If you’re buying outdoors clothing, check for suppliers like Fj.llr.ven and Patagonia that are trying to reduce the amount of microfibres in their products. Also, if you can bear it, avoid buying fluffy clothing and materials like fleeces as these can be some of the worst offenders in the washing machine.

Make your voice heard

If you’re in a shop and trying to do the right thing by searching for clothes made of natural materials and everything you like contains synthetic fibres, then do what any customer displeased with the service they are receiving should consider doing: complain! The more people who raise their voice either in private with the shop manager, via email to the customer service team or in public on social media – the more these companies will listen to the fact that people don’t want to be responsible for polluting our oceans through the clothes they buy.


Do you really need to wash that?

Only wash synthetic clothing when you have to. I’m often guilty at the end of the day of just putting my clothes in the laundry basket, when often after a day in the office they could easily be worn again.

Wash your clothes smarter

Research by clothing company Patagonia suggests that when you do wash your synthetics, the following measures can reduce the amount of microfibers they shed:

Washing at lower temperatures (ideally a coldwash)

Making sure you have a full load

Using a lower spin speed and a shorter cycle

Using fabric softener and liquid laundry detergent

Buy a Guppy Friend wash bag

Put your synthetic clothes inside a Guppy Friend washing bag before putting them in the wash. These mesh bags capture the microfibres inside for you to dispose of more responsibly in the bin. Alternatively, you could try another washing machine product called a Cora Ball, designed to catch microfibres. *

Buy a washing machine with a microfibre filter

Although not yet on the market, hopefully the growing demand will soon see the introduction of washing machines with in‑built microfibre filters, such as those being developed by the EU‑funded project called Mermaids. If you’re purchasing a new washing machine in a few years’ time, see if you can get one with such a filter.

Use washing detergent with less plastic packaging

Although not strictly related to microfibres, your washing detergent can also be a source of plastic waste. Instead of individually wrapped plastic capsules, use washing powder in a cardboard box; if you prefer liquid detergent, then buy it in large quantities to reduce the number of plastic bottles you’re using.

    We have three copies of How to Give Up Plastic by Will McCallum, head of oceans, @greenpeaceUK The book is filled with fascinating information about plastic, and easy ways to give it up. The book is published by Penguin Random House and is available at bookstores for about R320.
    •On Instagram post an image of how and what plastic you’ve given up this #PlasticFreeJuly
    •Tag @twygmag and @thebeachco-op
    •Mention #TwygWin and #RethinkTheBag
    •Deadline is 19 July  
    •We will announce the winner on 23 July  •Judges: @aani_crab of @thebeachco_op op and Hayley McLellan from @2oceansaquarium 
  • Neither the Guppy Bag nor the Cora Ball are available in South Africa – yet.
  • The featured image is from a show by Chulaap at the SA Menswear Fashion Week SS19. Photo taken by Larry English Photography