How fish end up eating your yoga pants

Written by Lucy Cunningham on October 26 2017

We’ve cut out plastic bottles and packaging because we’ve been shocked by images of vortices of plastic debris in the middle of the world’s oceans, or plastic litter washed up on beaches thousands of miles from human habitation. We’ve eagerly campaigned for the abolition of “micro-beads” – those tiny beads of plastic used to texturise cosmetics like face scrubs and toothpastes. We’ve replaced plastic bags with cloth carriers.

But something even more sinister is happening in our homes, flowing out from our washing machines every time we wash synthetic fabrics.

Microfibres are the scourge of our oceans. The latest research indicates that “more than 80 percent of the micro-plastics found in the ocean are actually micro-fibres from synthetic clothing”. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration define microfibres as plastic fibres 5mm or smaller. These tiny fibres are washed out of synthetic clothing and make their way through the world’s waterways to the ocean. Eventually they end up in the food we eat – Plymouth University recently estimated that a third of UK supermarket fish contains plastic contaminants. We don’t yet know what the implications of ingesting plastic will be on humans, but it seems the discovery of plastics in our food has been the impetus for people to sit up and take notice.

How yogic are your yoga pants?

That’s not to say that people weren't investigating the problem before. Plenty of biologists and ecologists have been researching microfibre pollution for years, and some applied to big name clothing companies to get funding for their research – with little success until recently.

The problem is that people don’t know that a lot of their sports clothing is made of plastic. After all, when you’re spending £100 on a pair of designer yoga pants, you wouldn’t necessarily guess that they’re essentially made of petroleum-based plastic – one of the world’s biggest and most dangerous pollutants.

From petroleum-based fabric manufacture, to construction in overseas sweatshops, to breaking down microscopically in our washing machines and polluting our seas, those expensive designer yoga pants are about as far as you can get from a yogic lifestyle.

The scale of the problem

A painstaking study undertaken at Plymouth University by marine biologists threw up the following discovery. An average UK washing load of 6kg (13lb) can release:

140,000 fibres from polyester-cotton blend

nearly half a million fibres from polyester

more than 700,000 fibres from acrylic

That’s per wash, so you begin to get a sense of the scale of the problem. And synthetic clothing manufacturers are passing the buck to the consumers – while manufacturers are held accountable for their emissions during manufacture of a product, they aren’t responsible once that item has been purchased. We essentially become the ones unknowingly polluting the oceans when we wash synthetic clothes.

Addicted to consumption

Whilst he agrees that clothing manufacturers need to think about what happens when we wash and wear our clothes, Professor Richard Blackburn, head of the sustainable materials research group at the University of Leeds, adds that "we are unsustainably addicted to consumption”. He goes on to say: "I cannot emphasise enough how much of a step-change it would be for sustainability if we bought fewer items of clothing per year, wore them for longer and threw them away less often.”

With the first episode of his new BBC TV series, Blue Planet II, airing on Sunday 29 October, Sir David Attenborough is particularly vociferous about the need for collective responsibility for our oceans. The series shows many distressing results of plastic pollution in the ocean, including an albatross feeding its chick bits of plastic. “We have a responsibility, every one of us,” Attenborough said. “We may think we live a long way from the oceans, but we don’t. What we actually do here, and in the middle of Asia and wherever, has a direct effect on the oceans – and what the oceans do then reflects back on us.”

Since current estimates suggest that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish, Attenborough is right that it’s vital we all became part of the solution.

Researchers in Germany have come up with the micro-fibre catching Guppy Friend – a mesh laundry bag in which to wash your synthetic clothing - which hopes to eradicate some of the problem. Companies such as Patagonia who sell recycled synthetic garments are now committed to research the environmental impact of microfibres and sell the Guppy Friend in their stores. 

Shop with compassion

But the best solution is to stop buying clothing that pollutes our oceans. When people heard about the marine damage micro-beads caused, they stopped buying products that contained them. Now it’s time to stop buying sports- and yoga-wear that directly impacts the health of our planet. We need to collectively make choices that serve everybody and the environment - not just for now, but for generations to come.

By creating yogawear that is hand-crafted from natural and sustainable fabrics here in our UK workshop, Gossypium are part of the solution. We are the antithesis of fast fashion because we make clothing to last – meaning that our customers get to wear our clothes for years to come. Not a throwaway garment in sight.

Choose Gossypium's natural, hard-wearing yoga pants made with care – and rest assured that they won't end up in the ocean. 

What you can do:

  • Shop consciously – choose clothing and fabrics that have minimal environmental impact and buy from companies for whom care for the environment is a guiding principle
  • Choose well, buy less – go for clothing that has been built to last and look after every item of clothing with care
  • Buy a Guppy Friend – a good solution if you need to wash synthetic clothing
  • Get involved with ocean conservation – the BBC Blue Planet II website has some ideas

Read more:

Return to Now blog post which inspired this post 

BBC article: Dirty Laundry 

Award-winning documentary Plastic Oceans 

Accumulation of Microplastic on Shorelines Worldwide: Sources and Sinks 

The Plastic Soup Foundation 


The Guardian article - From sea to plate: how plastic got into our fish 

Informative blog post from 1 Million Women 

Photo credit: Szilard Toth