Dominik Döhler

Fashion from ocean plastic

September 29, 2017

Adidas joins the wave of fashion companies producing clothes from recycled plastic waste. But will it help to cut fashion industry’s environmental toll?

Beachgoers hate it, divers despise it, the environment suffers from it and scientists keep coming up with alarming new numbers about its continuous spread; plastic waste.

Plastic is the most common type of marine litter, comprising up to 80% of the total waste in marine litter surveys. Most (over 80%) comes from land-based sources, while marine-based activities such as shipping, cruise lines, and fishing account for the remainder.

Over two-thirds of plastic litter ends up on the seabed, with half of the remainder washed up on beaches and the other half floating on or under the surface, according to a report from UNEP, United Nations Environment Program. Plastic waste found in the marine environment can potentially leach chemicals into the environment as well as attract and communicate hazardous chemicals from the ocean to wildlife.

What does this tell us? Perhaps two things; for one, it might be an indicator for the disastrous condition our oceans is currently in. But secondly, it might be proof of the variety of opportunities we have on our hand to tackle this problem. A shining example of the utilization of new opportunities comes from the fashion industry.

Following its much-anticipated limited edition of ocean plastic footwear in 2016, Adidas just released a new collection of recycled swimwear. Each piece is made from used fishing nets and recycled fibers that were retrieved from coastal waters. For this purpose, Adidas once again joined forces with the environmental initiative “Parley for the Oceans”. The same eco partnership has also pledged to produce at least one million pairs of its recycled ocean plastic sneakers by the end of 2017.

According to Tim Janaway, general director of Adidas Heartbeat Sport, as one of the largest international sportswear brands, the company has an obligation to act as a role model in the world of sports. With its new collection of swimwear, Adidas wants to further raise awareness for the protection of the oceans, not only for our sakes but for the sake of future generations. The company states that today 50% of its swim apparel is made out of recycled material.

The vicious plastic cycle

Although one of the most renowned, Adidas is hardly the only fashion brand that has recognized the untapped potential that slumbers within the deep blue. Textile companies such as G-Star Raw and Patagonia are also riding high on the wave of reusing recycled plastic from the seas for their apparel production. And considering the amount of plastic that is currently polluting our oceans, there is a seemingly infinite source of reusable waste at our disposal. For the companies not only is the recycling of synthetics an environmental question but an economic one: businesses are losing some $80 billion dollars each year on account of new plastic production, according to the Business Insider.

Nevertheless, our environment is definitely facing worse news. A study conducted by an international team of researchers concluded that a staggering minimum of 5.25 trillion land-based plastic particles, weighing over 270,000 tons afloat at seas nowadays. This includes micro-, meso- as well as micro-plastic particles ranging from 0.33 mm to over 200 mm. According to a recent report from the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, by 2050 plastic might outnumber fish (by weight) if the flux to the oceans continuous at the same pace as it is happening today.

Marine Microbiologist Dr. Adi Levy from the Israel Society of Ecology and Environmental Sciences warns of an almost invisible threat to marine life. “Plastic pollution is globally distributed across all oceans where it is fragmented into small microplastic particles by solar radiation and wave erosion. Microplastic fragments can then absorb persistent organic pollutants. The ingestion of those polluted microplastic particles by marine animals, ranging from zooplankton to whales, is well documented”.

The implications of plastic pollution for marine ecosystems are imminent and acute, but what comes around goes back around. Although we cannot see it, we humans are just as affected by the way we treat our waters as the animals living in it. The tiny plastic particles can bio-accumulate in aquatic organisms, which mistake them for food. This may lead to a chain reaction in which micro-plastics travel up the food chain and eventually end up on our own plates. Here, the cycle terminates, with us ingesting the tiny particles we so despise seeing on our beaches in the form of packaging, straws and plastic bags.

In this respect, one might think Adidas & Co are doing an indispensable job for us and the environment, which they do, if it wasn’t for one big apparent downside.

Already in 2011, Dr. Mark Anthony Browne, from the National Center for Ecological Analysis & Synthesis (NCEAS), University of California Santa Barbara, has demonstrated that with every wash cycle garments are shedding up to 1900 microfibers. Almost every single textile produces a considerable amount of fibers during each wash. Since most washing machines do not have the proper filter systems to capture those fibers, a large portion of the filaments finds its way into the oceans. And right here the next predicament emerges.

By producing new clothes from recycled plastic, big fashion companies perpetuate synthetic pollution. New textiles produced from ocean waste once again shed thousands of microfibers, which then once again end up in the oceans, while their initial purpose was quite the opposite. Additionally, most of the textile companies are seemingly not yet willing to grant funding for synthetic fiber research that aims to remove the polluting fibers from the materials.

Nevertheless, there might be a silver lining in the shape of a little bag that everyone who is concerned about their ecological footprint can use at home. The Guppy Bag seems unimpressive and not very cutting-edge at first glance, but it might implicate a profound ecological change. The little bag lets water and soap in and out but traps plastic microfibers that escape from the textiles during the wash cycle. The residues can simply be disposed of after the clean clothing has been removed from the bag.

According to the founders, Alexander Nolte, and Oliver Spies, the Guppy Bag collects 99% of the released microparticles. For their simple but ingenious innovation, the two outdoor apparel store managers were honored with the outdoor achievement award in Germany. The greater idea behind Guppy bag is to fundamentally cut the post-purchase impact the fashion industry has on the environment.

However, in the end, it will be the responsibility of the massive fashion industry to actively take measures against the adverse effects that textiles have on our planet. The first step has already been taken by brands such as Adidas and Patagonia, but a win-win situation might occur if the producing of new clothes from recycled plastic will focus on non-washable (shoes) or non-frequently washed garments such as coats. The next step might contain the actual prevention of plastic pollution, but this can only happen if consumers become proactive, shop smartly and contribute their daily share to reduce the environmental impact of their clothes.

*ZAVIT – Israel’s Science and Environment News Agency