Like many eaters, reading Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma completely changed how I thought about food and how I purchased it. It was 2007, the year after I had graduated from college, and I specifically remember looking at bundles of asparagus imported from who knows where and thinking about the energy it took to get them there.
We all have a point of revelation, a moment that causes us to question and to begin to change. Sometimes it’s less of an aha moment, and more of a gradual shift, but occasionally we can pinpoint the thing that tipped us off.
What has always stuck with me from Omnivore’s Dilemma was the discussion of oil and how it fuels our agricultural industry. “You are what you eat is a truism hard to argue with,” writes Pollan, “and yet it is, as a visit to a feedlot suggests, incomplete, for you are what what you eat eats, too. And what we are, or have become, is not just meat but number 2 corn and oil.”
I have thought about this even more so recently as it relates to the intersection of food and fiber: not only do we indirectly consume oil through our food products, but we also wear it.
In 1951 polyester suits went on sale in the United States. The fiber came not from a textile mill as it had done for decades previously, but instead from the DuPont chemical factory. Since then, the use of polyester in clothing has skyrocketed. Today, synthetic fabrics – polyester, nylon, acrylic – dominate the market. Our wardrobes filled not with cotton, linen and hemp as they were for centuries, but instead polyethylene terephthalate, commonly referred to as PET, a plastic made from crude oil.
In 2007, polyester overtook cotton as the world’s dominant fiber. That’s not so surprising; it’s inexpensive to make and easy to combine with other materials. In 1980, 5.3 million tons of polyester were produced annually. By 2025, it’s projected to be upwards of 90.5 million tons.
Unfortunately, our plastic wardrobes come at a cost. As plastic products, including synthetic clothing made with petrochemicals, break down, they become smaller and smaller. According to the Royal Society of Chemistry, “The durable properties of plastics make them persistent and slow to degrade in the environment, and ultimately non-recycled plastics on land and in the rivers are left to work their way into the oceans.”
Microplastics – pieces of plastic that are less than 5mm in size – have become a particular problem. Today it is estimated that there are trillions of microplastic particles in our oceans, and our wardrobes are contributing to those numbers; every time we wash an item of synthetic clothing – your yoga pants, you running shorts, your fleece jacket – more of these microplastics are released.
Plastic fibers have been found in everything from drinking water to fish to sea salt. “Not only are plastics pervasive in our society in terms of daily use, but they are pervasive in the environment,” Sherri Mason, a professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia, told The Guardian. Plastics are “ubiquitous, in the air, water, the seafood we eat, the beer we drink, the salt we use – plastics are just everywhere.” And the issue of plastic pollution is only going to get worse: it’s estimated that by 2050, plastic pollution could outweigh the amount of fish in the ocean.
Mason, the lead researcher on a new study that looked at 12 different sea salts from around the world purchased at US grocery stores. Mason and her team found that Americans could be ingesting upwards of 660 particles of plastic per year. But that’s if they stick to the advices 2.3 grams of salt per day; most Americans consume far more salt than that. In other words: we are literally wearing and eating oil.
The full health impact of the situation has yet to be fully understood, but the research of the impact of microplastics on organisms is growing. For example, by the French Institute for the Exploitation of the Sea looking at microplastics and oysters found that, “Oysters that consume microplastics eat more algae and absorb it more efficiently…[their] ability to reproduce is almost halved.”
Researchers in British Columbia have been looking at oysters as well, finding that “when you eat clams and oysters, you’re eating plastics as well,” shellfish biologist Sarah Dundas told NPR.
So what is the solution?
The United Nations Environment Program recently launched a Clean Seas campaign, urging global citizens to stop their use of single-use plastic items.
When it comes to clothes, many of the everyday items that we wear are functional because of synthetics, particular fabrics with a little stretch to them. But rethinking our wardrobes, and how we might shift them to be filled with more fibers that are regenerative as opposed to extractive is worth our time.
Before petrochemicals, we grew fibers instead of making them in a chemical lab, and growing fiber is just like growing food; done in a responsible way, it can be a part of a regenerative cycle. Natural, organically grown fibers like linen, cotton, wool and hemp can in fact help to improve the soil and make for climate-beneficial clothing.
When it comes to doing our grocery shopping, many of us remember to bring our own bags, helping us to avoid using single-use plastic bags. We bring our own water bottles to, skipping the single-use water bottles. We can avoid single-use food packaging by buying in bulk. We can ditch other single-use plastic items like straws, reminding cafes and restaurants that they don’t have to automatically be put in every drink.
What if we started applying those same principles to our wardrobes? In an era of fast fashion, it’s not uncommon that an item of clothing becomes single-use, and made with petrochemicals, a one-time party dress will be around for many years after you wore it. Even for longer lasting items, we can consider whether something is a “need” or a “want.” When it is time to buy something, choosing quality over quantity. If you’re washing synthetic items of clothing, follow these guidelines.
It’s time to rethink our wardrobes, and to shift away from plastic clothing.
Change starts with us.
Image: Washed Ashore Ocean Pollution Collection Site, Bandon, Oregon by Anna Brones