How Many Pounds of Clothes Do We Need?

In 1990, we each owned about 17 pounds of clothes. By 2016, we owned on average more than 57 pounds each. And, when you think about how little some people on this planet own, some of us must own much more than 57 pounds.

Researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara are looking at what this means for pollution in our oceans and rivers as well as on land. The link is that when laundered, synthetic microfibers – mainly from nylon and polyester fabrics, which are made from gas and oil – enter the environment. Scientists estimate that more than 6 million tons of symthetic fibers have been deposited in the environment since these fabrics became popular in the 1950s, half of that in the past decade alone. More than 3 million tons ended up in our waters. Remember, these fibers are essentially plastic: 14 percent of all plastics manufactured are used to create synthetic fibers, as reported by BBC News.

Did you know that hundreds of thousands of plastic fibers were released the last time you washed your yoga pants or fleece jacket? It’s critical that we use effective filters, at individual (think washing machine rinse water filters) as well as industrial (think water plant filters) levels. As impact investors, we at DGI offer a range of filters and also invest in zNano, a company of filtration experts.

By using effective filters and then safely disposing of the microfibers caught, we can save the world from an unseen killer. The visible plastic – also a major problem – floating in the ocean is just the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of sea animals are absorbing and eating microfibers in what looks like clean water. In some cases, those are the same creatures we eat, which is one way that plastic pollution ends up on our dinner plates.

We’re between a rock and a hard place with plastics in general right now. We’ve learned that despite reassurances from oil and gas companies – the makers of plastics – less than 10 percent of plastics have ever been recycled, according to an NPR and PBS Frontline investigation. That’s not a consumer problem. Many of us dutifully recycled items but were misled by companies who wanted to keep us using more and more new plastic. Now we’re seeing the results in our landfills, as well as our oceans, air and bodies. Turns out the same is true for synthetic microfibers – we’re using technology (sophisticated filters) to capture pollution before it hits the oceans and rivers, but then it’s often used in agricultural water or ends up in landfills. While we work to stop plastic pollution at its source, though, let’s at least stop the random dispersal of plastics across our ecosystems.