Exposing the failures of the linear economy

Today, a staggering percentage of our clothes and soft goods contain plastic. One recent study that looked at more than 4,000 articles of clothing found that 67 percent contained plastic fibers. Of those, the average garment was 53 percent synthetic. The textiles industry has become dependent on plastics.

When you think about the lifecycle of plastic, it isn't just problematic at the end of its life; it's problematic from the very beginning. The plastic and synthetic fabric supply chain is inseparable from fossil fuel extraction and the ecological devastation it causes. From oil spills to habitat loss, the costs of mining fossil fuels are massive. Once plastic materials are in the hands of consumers, they shed microplastics throughout the duration of use. And then, when plastics are discarded, the vast majority — 90 percent by one estimate — either end up in landfills where they leach harmful chemicals for decades or they get incinerated, releasing carbon into the atmosphere.

The true carbon footprint of plastics is not accurately accounted for by the textiles industry. It has recently come to light that the amount of methane, a harmful greenhouse gas, that is released during the extraction, transport, and processing of fossil fuels used to make plastic has been undercounted.

The bottom line: Plastics are bad from start to finish.

One of the emergent issues caused by the recent explosion of synthetic fabrics in the textiles industry is microplastic pollution. We now know that synthetic garments shed fibrous microplastics (fibers less than 5 mm) when worn, washed, and dried. As a result, we are all breathing, eating, and drinking plastic. A new study suggests microplastics can even latch onto the outer membranes of human red blood cells and stretch them out such that it may affect their ability to transport oxygen.

Within the textile industry, which according to one study is responsible for 35 percent of plastic microplastic pollution, there is very little acknowledgement of the microfiber issue, in particular, what to do about it. Unfortunately, recycling is not the solution it's been pitched as.

Recycling, in its current form, is a clever marketing campaign that was created by the petroleum industry. The goal is to calm consumer anxiety about how prolific plastic waste and pollution has become. At the end of the day, even when recycled, plastic is still plastic.

This is reality: Greater than 90 percent of plastics end up landfilled, burned, or become pollution. And all of these processes associated with attempts to recycle emit greenhouse gases — either directly or via the energy required to accomplish them. The carbon footprint of plastics continues even after we’ve disposed of them. Dumping, incinerating, recycling and composting (for certain plastics) all release carbon dioxide.

That’s why we’re reinventing the material world, powered by plants.

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