Is your recycled jacket a source of microplastics?
We tend to be blinded to unintended negative consequences when we search for silver bullets. We forget that measures can have significant positive effects while producing some negative ones. As a result, it is critical to managing both the intended positive effects and the unintended negative ones.
A good illustration is the microplastics increase resulting from some textile sector circular practices. In this blog, we’ll look at why microplastics are an unintended negative consequence and what textile companies can do about it.
What’s the deal with microplastics?
Researchers are increasingly revealing the negative impact of microplastics on the environment and our health. Consequently, microplastics are getting a few new nicknames: “major environmental concern” (Amobonye et al., 2021), “emerging pollutant” (Sol et al., 2020), and “extremely harmful” (Khalid et al., 2021).
Microplastics have also been hitting the newspaper headlines. Society is getting more and more concerned about the issue of microplastics.
Microplastics in the textile sector
People working in the textile sector know there is rising pressure to reduce its environmental footprint. Consequently, many clothing companies are turning to circular principles to reduce impact. Consumers have noticed this by the amount of clothes available from recycled materials.
Sadly, when recycling clothing materials, there is a risk that more microfibers are leaking into the environment than when handling virgin materials (RIVM, 2019). Luckily, the number of released microplastics can also be decreased with the right measures. However, this risk is no reason to stop using recycled material. On the contrary, the number of released microplastics can be reduced with the right measures. Therefore, microplastics should be considered in the circular economy strategy of clothing companies.
After speaking with several actors in the sector about the issue, we recognized that microplastics are currently missing in circular strategies. For instance, multiple companies are heavily investing in recycled polyester chains without identifying the possible unintended adverse effects. The effectiveness of their sustainability efforts is being undermined by this blind spot.
The pressure is turning up
Various developments in the microplastics field will increase the pressure on the textile sector to act
1/ Regulations will most likely be applied: National health agencies and NGOs call for government action. In the cosmetics sector, such measures are already on their way (ECHA, n.d.)
2/ NGOs are holding clothing companies & certification parties responsible: E.g., The Plastic Soup Foundation launched a ‘Fatal Fashion’ campaign (Plastic Soup Foundation, n.d.). Meanwhile, Cradle to Cradle is being criticized for being asleep on the microplastics issue (Changing Markets, 2022)
3/ Scientific research on the subject will continue to increase
4/ Media attention on the topic will continue to increase
Where do we go from here?
Before new problems are resolved they tend to go through 4 stages. The micro-plastics problem is currently still in the inception phase. A few fragmented projects have been conducted and awareness of the problem has started. Although some cooperation can already be found in for example the #Microfibre consortium and some initial legislation (focusing on for example the end of pipeline solution: washing machine filters) is forthcoming.
In this phase, organizations can start solving the problem of microplastics by acknowledging it and begin integrating it into their regular operations. For example, companies could include it in their circular economy strategy and identify it as a material sustainability (sub)topic. Organizations can then begin identifying solutions and begin with pilot projects while integrating it in their own operational baseline. Consequently, they can start engaging the value chain and other actors in the sector.
For the long-term we need legislation to set a minimum standard, yet for the short-term progressive companies can take the lead to push the market into the right way.
Will the real leader please stand up
Textile companies can take a frontrunner role in helping this sustainable transition since there are no first movers identified in the sector (yet).
Why would you want to be a frontrunner? Frontrunners tend to:
- create a competitive advantage by cocreating sustainable markets (Loorbach & Wijsman, 2013)
- be rewarded and supported by NGOs (Nijhof & Simons, 2020)
- receive recognition from the government (Nijhof & Simons, 2020)
- develop renewed passion and enthusiasm (Loorbach & Wijsman, 2013)
We look forward to the moment that companies emerge as frontrunners and legislation shaping a market in which avoiding microplastics is a basic quality requirement. And we are eager to contribute, so feel free to get in touch to exchange ideas if you aspire to start tackling this issue.