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Polyester clothing is everywhere. That’s brutal for our waterways

Wearing polyester is like wearing plastic, which is why plastic bags, bottles and straws aren’t the only pollutants we should cut back on.

A man carrying goods in plastic bags walks past a sign promoting a plastic bag-free shopping experience, outside a store in Bangkok earlier this month.
A man carrying goods in plastic bags walks past a sign promoting a plastic bag-free shopping experience, outside a store in Bangkok earlier this month.

We hear a lot about plastics and how bad they are for the environment. They end up in our lakes, rivers and oceans. Our wildlife ingest them.

For that reason, many people have cut back on bagging their groceries in plastic. In many places, like Chicago, you pay a tax for bags at stores. A lot of people also are using fewer single-use water bottles, which is a very good thing.

This line in a Chicago Sun-Times editorial last week that warned about plastics contaminating our waterways got my attention:

“Scads of polyester fibers from clothes can drain into waterways whenever people do their laundry. Choosing more clothing made of natural fibers can make our water and food safer.”

If you’re wearing polyester, you’re basically wearing plastic. And that’s brutal for the environment.

“Polyester starts out as plastic, the same thing you find in plastic water bottles,” Karen Leonas, a textiles expert who teaches at North Carolina State University, told me.

There’s a good chance you’re wearing polyester right now. It once again rules the clothing industry.

Leonas gave me some data this week about the prevalence of polyester in the clothing industry: There was a 157 percent increase in the amount of polyester used in apparel between 2000 and 2015. About 60 percent of garments have polyester in them.

Data also show that synthetic fibers are more prevalent in women’s clothing than men’s, Leonas said. You probably figured this out already if you’re a woman with sensitive skin who is struggling to find clothes made of natural fibers such as cotton.

Polyester came to be king again because the material was refined. It’s nothing like the thick, hot fabric that leisure suits were made of in the 1970s. It can be a cheaper alternative to natural fibers. That matters a lot to middle- and lower-income Americans feeling an economic squeeze.

It’s not always inexpensive, though. Athletic apparel companies like Nike and Under Armour use a lot of polyester in their clothing, and those brands aren’t exactly cheap.

Toward the top of the price scale, fashion designer Carolina Herrera has a polyester and viscose mock-neck knit top with ruffle overlay selling for $2,190 at Neiman Marcus. Twenty-five years ago, I couldn’t have imagined it.

People like polyester because it’s easy to care for. Oftentimes, you don’t have to take it to the dry cleaners, which is a plus for the environment. It’s fast-drying, which means it needs less time in the dryer. Athletes prefer it because it dries fast after sweaty workouts.

Polyester is produced in a broader range of colors and textures compared to 40 years ago, which has made it more appealing, Leonas pointed out to me. “It wicks away water,” she said. “It’s not as plasticky or harsh.”

But it’s still a plastic. And it ends up in our waterways. Fish eat it, which means we eat it.

Four years ago, the outdoor apparel company Patagonia commissioned a study that found that a single fleece jacket sheds as many as 250,000 synthetic fibers. A filter for your washing machine, to catch fibers, is helpful. But used filters end up in landfills and the fibers they grab often reach waterways.

When natural fibers end up in waterways, they break down much easier than synthetics, Jaclyn Wegner, director of conservation action for the Shedd Aquarium, told me.

Polyester is designed to not degrade. The fibers are everywhere — in the air, water and the ground. Wastewater treatment plants filter out 67% to 95% of microplastics, Leonas said. But still, that leaves 5% to 33% hanging around.

“A lot of places in the world don’t have wastewater treatment plants,” Leonas reminded me.

The Illinois Legislature did a good thing five years ago when it banned microbeads, which had been used in personal-care products. The beads were being ingested by wildlife.

But some scientists believe that microfibers from our clothing are even worse than microbeads.

“Microbeads are easier for animals to pass through their systems than microfibers,” Wegner told me.

Scientists still don’t know the full extent of what plastics are doing to wildlife, Wegner said. That research is being done now. But researchers know that plastics absorb toxins, and that’s concerning.

The biggest culprits in polluting waterways are single-use and disposable plastics, Wegner emphasized. Single-use straws are pollutants.

But synthetic clothes also are a problem. Many apparel companies are working with researchers like Leonas to make their industry processes and garments more sustainable.

A big problem lies with us, the consumers. Recycling efforts take money and sometimes result in higher prices. Making shirts out of cotton costs more when cotton crops are ruined by droughts or floods. But we don’t want to pay more. Some of us can’t pay more.

Here’s what we can do: If you can afford to do so, look at clothing tags and choose natural fibers like cotton, hemp or linen. They’re better for your skin and will degrade in the environment. But stay away from bamboo. Chemicals for processing it “are horrible for the environment,” Leonas said.

If you buy clothes made from synthetics, don’t be quick to get rid of them. Donate them to thrift shops if they’re in good shape. Do an online search of stores or places that accept clothes for recycling, such as H&M.

We shouldn’t buy more than we need. I’m working on it.

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