The Monster In Your Closet: Microplastics in Fashion

Synthetic fabrics are responsible for releasing 35% of microplastics into the ocean making them the real monsters in your closet. Here’s what you can do to fight microplastic pollution.


As children, we feared the spooky creatures hiding in our closets at bedtime- patiently waiting until we fell asleep, ready to jump out and torture us in our sleep. As adults, we know these mythical creatures don’t exist, but adulthood came to a much scarier reality- Climate Change

Plastic soup, the name given to the litter floating in our oceans, comes from the millions of pieces of tiny plastic polluting our water supplies. These tiny plastics are called microplastics. They are the real-life monsters hiding in our closets. Sitting in our clothes, waiting to wreak havoc on our ecosystem.

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are, as named, tiny particles of plastic. They are defined as plastics less than five millimetres (0.2 inches) in diameter. Microplastics are sometimes intentionally created for example in cosmetics to create an exfoliation effect, but most often they are made from the shedding of textiles and other products. The breaking down of plastic products break down due to solar radiation or ocean waves is also responsible for microplastics (National Geographic).

When did they become an issue?

The first microplastics were noticed in the 1970s, but they only recently gained international attention about a decade ago. In recent years, government policies have offered some band-aid regulations to reduce microplastic pollution such as banning plastic straws. Global system-wide action against the reduction of plastic pollution remains to be seen.

The effects of microplastics

Like greenhouse gases, microplastics pollute our planet. Plastic does not disintegrate down to a harmless molecule. Rather, it stays for hundreds of years, never breaking down and returning to the earth. The teeny tiny microplastics end up in the water, air, and soil, contaminating our ecosystem. We find them in our drinking water, in food, and eventually inside our bodies. The Plastic Soup Foundation states:

“To solidify or to make more flexible plastic products, substances such as bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates are used. Both these groups of chemical substances are strongly suspected of disrupting our hormone balance and having effects on our health. Everyone, young or old, is constantly being exposed to them. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals are associated with around eighty diseases, including testicular cancer, obesity, and reproductive disorders. Almost all people have traces of BPA in their bodies.” 

Animals getting stuck in plastic have been the center of many marketing campaigns. But they also end up eating plastic as they are not able to distinguish it from food. 

Animals that eat plastic suffer and die because of it. Swallowed plastic fills up the stomach and reduces hunger. Larger pieces of plastic can also block their gastrointestinal tract so that the plastic can no longer be excreted. In other cases, plastic is ground into small pieces in the stomach and then scattered everywhere (Plastic Soup Foundation)

Turtle in Plastic

What products have microplastics?

Microplastics are becoming increasingly present in almost all products as plastic dominates our world. Your tires, water bottles, clothing, laundry & dish pods, glitter, cigarettes, wet wipes, tea bags, take-away cups and even paint can contain microplastics. It’s also estimated that 9/10 cosmetic products contain microplastics

Microplastics in Clothing

Microplastics in the fashion industry are a hot topic, justly so. Microplastics from textiles, commonly known as microfibers due to their fiber shape, account for between 16-35% of all microplastics released globally each year. That’s equal to between 200,000 and 500,000 tonnes of microplastics in the ocean. In Europe alone, 8% of all microplastics come from textiles. If the fashion industry continues as is, between the years 2015 and 2050, 22 million tonnes of microfibres will enter our oceans. 

How are microplastics coming from clothes?

Fibers are “shed” from textiles while they are in use. You shed microfibers into the air just by wearing your garments. All textiles shed fibers, however, oil-based synthetic fibers are harmful to the environment as they don’t break down in nature.

Until the Edwardian era (1900-1910), clothing and textiles were onlymade of natural fibers such as cotton, wool, silk, etc. The early 20th century brought synthetic fibers. Nylon, the first oil-based synthetic fiber, arrived in the 30s. Polyester came shortly after, followed by many other synthetic fibers (Wikipedia).

As the population of the United States has quadrupled since 1900, textile consumption has multiplied 30 times as much. The current global consumption rate of clothes is more than 30 pounds per person annually. In the US, it is more than 100 pounds. The majority is synthetic fibers.

Microplastics and the production of textiles

The production processes of synthetic fibres, yarns, fabrics and products play a part in the release of microfibers. In 2016, 100 million tons of textiles were produced across the globe, 62.7% being polyester fibers (Ecori).

Companies can have the most impact if they take microfibre release into consideration at the design and manufacturing stages (Fashion Revolution).  Care should be taken to source materials that have a minimal release of synthetic microfibers into the environment. A good quality design would ensure a garment has a long life cycle, requires less washing and is less likely to end up in a landfill. 

Several methods can be applied during the manufacturing process to reduce microfibre shedding. Brushing the material, using laser and ultrasound cutting, coatings and pre-washing the garments can all reduce microfiber shedding.

Evidence also shows that the majority of microfiber shedding comes in the first washes. Pre-washing textiles would allow the manufacturer to catch microfibers before they leave the facility.

What fabrics release microfibers?

All fabrics shed microfibers- even natural fibers. But since synthetic textiles are made from petroleum, the fibers which are shed are plastic. Nylon, polyester, rayon, spandex, acetate, and acrylic, are just a few of the fabrics that shed microplastics. Having a mix of both natural and synthetic fabrics also means the fibers shed will be plastic.

The way the fabric is woven also affects its’ shedding. Fabrics that are tightly woven, with longer fibers, will shed less and more slowly, whereas short, loose-weave fibers shed quicker (EEA). Fleece, a plastic-based, fluffy cloth, is the worst offender of microplastics. 

Watch out for that “Wool Blend” label. While it might be named wool, the percentage of wool is likely very small and is blended with a mix of synthetic fibers. Always check the fabric content on your labels! 

Zara Screen Shot

This Zara sweater claims to be a blend of wool and Alpaca. But upon closer investigation, the sweater is actually 62% synthetic fibers. 

Screenshot taken February 2, 2023

Microfibers & Clothes Washing

Washing clothes in the washing machine is one of the biggest perpetrators of microplastic shedding. Although shedding decreases over time, the wearing out of fabrics as garments age also leads to an increase in microfibre shedding (EEA).

Washing machines are not designed to catch the tiny fibers that come off your clothing in the wash. The friction that is created in the washing process significantly increases the release of microfibers. 

When clothes are washed in the washing machine, the wastewater goes into the public sewer systems. That water is then filtered out and into our water supplies such as oceans, rivers, and lakes where millions of tiny microplastics live for decades. Some wastewater management facilities actually filter water into sludge. Sludge is a reservoir of wastewater which is released onto land. While a filtering system can capture up to 90% of microfibers released, about 10% will still be present and absorbed into groundwater. The microplastics are then absorbed by crops through their uptake of nutrients from the soils, and by insects, worms and birds

Fast fashion’s role in microplastic pollution

Fast Fashion, known as “inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends”, is the most notorious culprit of microfibre release. Fast fashion garments contain a high amount of synthetic fibres and account for a high share of first washes, as they tend to be used for only a short period of time and wear out quickly (EEA).

With the popularity of “fast fashion”, a new model of consumption came about. “Instead of buy, keep, repair, it became buy, throw away, and buy more,”(ECORI).

Retailers like SHEIN play a huge part in this wasteful model and the pollution of microplastics. Which such low prices, consumers don’t care if a garment breaks down quickly, as they can easily repurchase and replace it with something newer and trendier. SHEIN garments have an extremely high amount of synthetic fibers as they are cheaper to source and create than long-lasting, quality textiles such as wool, cotton and silk.

A shift in consumer mindset is necessary to change the consumption of clothing from cheap, fast and low-quality to high-quality textiles that last several seasons and several washes.

Buyers Beware! Since “sustainable fashion” became an industry buzzword, many companies will claim sustainable garments, without disclosing the facts. Many online retailers do not publish the fiber content of their garments. This is greenwashing. 

Shein Haul Hashtag on Instagram

Fashion “hauls” – a popular social media showcases extreme amounts of clothing consumption- usually fast fashion. An Instagram search of #sheinhaul shows 613, 272 posts. 

Avoiding microplastics can seem impossible! However, with a little bit of extra thought, you can help reduce the impact of microplastics.

How to prevent releasing microfibers when washing your clothes?

Samsung and Patagonia recently partnered together to create a washing machine that catches microplastics. The washing machines will feature new filter systems and cycles, with both companies looking at reducing microplastics by up to 54 percent. The washing machines are expected to release later in 2023.

But what about the rest of us who can’t afford a new washing machine? Here are a few tips you can consider to reduce the impact of microplastic shedding in your clothes-washing process.

  1. Wash Less

    • We don’t need to be washing clothes as often as we do. While it’s nice to have clean clothes all the time, over-laundering them can cause more harm than good. Every time you wash your clothes, the textile breaks down. You will contribute to less microfiber shedding and prolong the life cycle of your garment. 
  2. Use less Water

    • Reducing the volume of water you use in proportion to the fabric. Studies suggest that more water causes more microfiber shedding (Wirecutter). You should always try to wash a full load to make sure the appropriate amount of water is present. Delicate settings are also known to release more microfibers due to their use of more water.
  3. Choosing the correct laundry detergent

    • Powdered laundry detergent is known to contribute to a higher amount of microplastic release. This is because the gritty soap creates more friction in the wash thus, more shedding. 
    • While the laundry pods might seem easy and convenient, one study found that 75 percent of the plastic used in detergent pods enters the environment.
    • Using a liquid laundry detergent will be your best bet to reduce microplastic pollution in your wash. There are also several eco-friendly laundry detergents that don’t contribute to the release of microplastics on the market.  Global2000 did a study and found that products by Planet Pure, Ecover, Sodasan, Sonett, and Splendid were all tested as microplastic-free.
  4. Wash by hand/spot clean

    • If you do have a garment that needs washing, washing by hand is a much gentler option. It’s unreasonable to expect families to wash all their clothes by hand all the time, especially workout and sports clothing. However, some items like jeans, trousers, tops, and sweaters will benefit from hand washing.
    • To spot clean, you can also use a steamer. There’s no need to wash an entire blazer or wool sweater, but just steam out the armpits and hang it to dry. Good as new. You won’t regret Investing in a small hand-held steamer to have in your home.
    • Maintaining the quality of your clothing will save you a lot of money in the long run. So you can feel good about saving your wallet and the planet.
  5. Use Laundry bags

    • Specialized laundry bags are created to catch microfibers during the wash cycle.
      •  Guppyfriend is the most common microfiber-friendly washing bag. It’s made with woven monofilament, a single polyamide filament, similar to fishing line, that does not disintegrate into fibers the way yarn does. (Wirecutter). You can purchase it directly through their website, as well as through other retailers such as Care of Carl in Sweden. The 2020 University of Plymouth study found that the Guppyfriend reduced microfibers by 54%.
  6. Use a Laundry Ball

    1. The Cora Ball is a laundry ball which aims to reduce the microplastics problem. The University of Plymouth study found it reduces microfibers by about 31%. 
  7. Other Tips

It is repeated religiously that drying clothes in the dryer reduces quality. While more research is needed on its effect on the release of microplastic, hanging your clothes dry will reduce energy usage while prolonging the life of your garments. Washing with cold water also requires more research on micro shedding. However, washing with cold water will keep the colours on your clothes bright, reduce shrinking and keep your electricity bill low. 90% of a washing machine’s electricity usage comes from heating the water. 

Research also suggests that frontloading washing machines reduce shedding compared to top-loading models. While not everyone is in a position to buy a new washing machine, it’s a good thing to consider when the time comes.


With the fashion industry responsible for 10% of global GHG Emissions and a third of microplastics in the ocean, it’s time the industry is held accountable. n 2016, 100 million tons of textiles were produced across the globe, 62.7% being polyester fibers (Ecori)

While companies need to shift to a circular model of production, we, the consumers, have the power to make changes. Don’t let your closet become a monster! Some easy habits to adapt to reduce the impact of microplastics look like:

  1. Committing to purchasing less clothing
    • Become a conscious consumer- do you know how much you really have? What do you really need? 
    • Research the brands you are buying from to ensure their values match up with yours
  2. Purchasing higher quality garments that will last longer
    • Search for natural fibers like wool and cotton that are not blended with synthetic fibers
    • Some clothing companies do not disclose the fiber content of their clothing on their websites. Ensure you know exactly what you are buying before you click check out. 
  3. Implementing sustainable clothes-washing practices
    • Wash your clothes less
    • Wash in the appropriate setting with the appropriate amount of water to clothing
    • Spot treat & hand wash
    • Use liquid laundry detergent
    • Use laundry bags/balls

As for me, I made the commitment in September of 2022 to not buy any fast fashion for 1 year. It’s 6 months later and I haven’t missed shopping. I still have shopping apps on my phone and browse them for inspiration. I’ve really been enjoying using my clothes to their full potential and creating new outfits with items I already own.

Do you have any sustainable fashion commitments for the future? Let me know in the comments below!

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