Fleece Fashion’s Real Cost: How The Cozy Clothes Contribute to Microplastic Pollution

Sandy Rivers
By Sandy Rivers

As cozy as they are, fleece garments are contributing to our microplastics problem by shedding hundreds of thousands of microplastic fibers with every wash. Synthetic fleece, made from extruded plastic filament, is becoming a major pollutant, as highlighted by outdoor clothing giant Patagonia. During laundry, these garments release microfibers that journey from our washing machines to sewers and eventually into the oceans, posing a serious threat to marine life and water quality.

The Alarming Facts About Fleece

Research indicates that a single fleece jacket can release up to 250,000 synthetic fibers in one wash. If we consider the global scale of fleece washing, which Patagonia estimates at 100,000 jackets annually, the fibers released are comparable to the plastic content of roughly 11,900 grocery bags.

Beyond Microfibers Is The Chemical Threat

Adding to the peril are the chemical additives found in performance apparel, such as those that make garments waterproof and breathable. These chemicals accompany microfibers into water systems, complicating the pollution problem with potentially toxic substances that affect both wildlife and human health.

How Fleece Is Made: From Petroleum to Your Closet

Fleece, a popular fabric loved for its warmth and light weight, begins its life far from the cozy garments we wear. The process of making fleece is surprisingly complex and starts with petroleum because, after all, fleece is plastic.

Here’s a breakdown of how this synthetic material comes to be:

  1. Extraction and Refining

Fleece is primarily made from polyester, which originates from petroleum. The first step involves extracting crude oil from the Earth, which is then refined into several chemicals, including ethylene.

  1. Polymerization

Ethylene is chemically transformed into polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a type of plastic. This is done through a process called polymerization, where small molecules called monomers join together to form a long, repeating chain known as a polymer.

  1. Melting and Extruding

The PET is then melted and forced through tiny holes to create thin strands of fiber. This process, known as extruding, transforms the liquid plastic into long, thin fibers that are solid at room temperature.

  1. Spinning and Weaving

After cooling and solidifying, these fibers are stretched to increase their strength and then spun into yarn. The yarn can be knitted or woven into large rolls of fleece fabric.

  1. Texturing

To give fleece its characteristic fluffy texture, the surface of the fabric is brushed rigorously. This raises a layer of fibers and creates that soft, plush feel typical of fleece garments.

Environmental Impact of Fleece Production

Each step of this manufacturing process is far from eco-friendly.

    • The extraction of petroleum is a resource-intensive process that often involves significant ecological disruption.
    • Refining petroleum and producing plastics emit large quantities of greenhouse gases.
    • The extruding, spinning, and texturing phases require vast amounts of water and energy.

The durability of polyester means that fleece garments have a long useful life, reducing the need for frequent replacement, which absolutely sets it apart from most fast-fashion goods. Sadly, this strength is a double-edged sword, as polyester is non-biodegradable. At the end of their lifecycle, fleece items often accumulate in landfills or fragment into microplastics that pollute ecosystems.

Scientific Insights into Microfiber Shedding

A significant study delved into how synthetic textiles, particularly polyester and nylon garments, shed fibers during conventional washing cycles. This research tested various apparel types in both front-loading and top loading washing machines to understand the extent of microfiber release.

Surprisingly, garments washed in top-load machines shed approximately seven times more microfibers than those in front-load washers. Additionally, garments that were mechanically aged showed a higher rate of microfiber release compared to new ones.

What Can Be Done About Microfiber Pollution?

This problem demands comprehensive solutions that involve changes at every level of the textile production and consumer use chain. Here are a few strategies that could help mitigate microfiber pollution:

    • Improving washing machine technology to capture microfibers before they reach waterways.
    • Developing and promoting the use of microfiber filters for household washers.
    • Enhancing wastewater treatment processes to better capture and dispose of microfibers.
    • Encouraging the textile industry to create low-shed materials and consumers to opt for eco-friendlier fabrics.

While commercial solutions like better filters and eco-friendly fabrics are developing, awareness and consumer action can play crucial roles. Choosing garments made from natural fibers, using colder and shorter wash cycles, and avoiding unnecessary washes can all reduce the number of microfibers released.

The journey to solving the microplastic pollution problem is long and complex, but with continued research, technological advances, and informed consumer choices, we can make significant strides towards cleaner, safer waterways and oceans.

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