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Public awareness of the issue of single-use plastics is increasing and with it a collective shift in consciousness towards sustainable consumption. This has brought about slight changes in our individual choices and the implementation of  various plastic-waste prevention actions by governments and industry.

By now, some of us remember to bring our reusable bags for grocery shopping. We have probably also made peace with paper straws and may even separate our rubbish into various categories to aid recycling. Now, in the era of Covid-19  we need to make an effort to properly dispose of masks, gloves and other protective equipment. These are all commendable actions that need to be permanently adopted by all as we wrap up this month’s Plastic Free July initiative, a global call to action that asks consumers to reduce, recycle or refuse to use single-use plastic.

Awareness campaigns such as Plastic Free July can both spur behaviour change and demand that industry accounts for the negative effects of the plastic value chain on the environment. However, to more effectively reduce plastic pollution we — consumers, industry and policymakers — need to broaden our horizons and look at the consumption patterns that fuel plastic production and the industries that thrive on generating new plastic products.

The average consumer’s idea of plastic is usually discarded packaging. Occasionally a clothing label may state “made out of 100% recycled plastic bottle”, which indicates plastic was used in the manufacturing of that clothing. Recycling plastic waste and turning it into a useful material is important because it prevents leakage into the environment, boosts innovation and can help create livelihoods. However, the process of recycling plastic into clothing still needs to be optimised as it can affect the environment too.

Furthermore, seldom mentioned and largely hidden from public view is the amount of virgin, or new, plastic that goes into making cheap synthetic material that is heavily used in the production of “fast fashion”. In fact, two thirds of all clothing contains petroleum-based synthetic fibres such as polyester, acrylic, elastane and nylon which are all essentially plastic. The volume of plastic and potentially harmful additives used in the clothing and textile industry is immense and adds to the industry’s already considerable environmental toll. 

The volume of water used in the production of garments is also staggering. According to the UN Environmental Programme, 2,700 litres is required to produce one T-shirt — enough drinking water for one person for more than two years. The subsequent pollution as a result of textile dyes and synthetic chemicals has been researched, documented and explicitly shown to be one of the causes of ecosystem deterioration and disease in communities living and working in areas with high industrial activity.

While recycled polyester keeps plastic from reaching the ocean, it still releases microscopic plastic fibres when in use or being washed. According to a 2017 report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, microfibres from products such as synthetic clothes and car tyres could contribute as much as 30% of the plastic waste that ends up in the environment. Even after disposal in landfills, chemicals leaking from discarded clothing could eventually end up in groundwater if these disposal areas aren’t designed and managed properly.

Like most microplastics, microfibres from clothing eventually end up in our rivers, dams and ultimately the ocean. An estimated 35% of primary plastic in most of the world’s oceans originates from particles in items made with synthetic material.

Water treatment plants have been identified as a potential source for the transfer of microplastics and fibres into water environments. Recent studies show well-designed and maintained water-treatment facilities can remove almost all (as much as 94%) of the microplastics in the untreated water, but that efficiency will decline in plants not functioning properly. Moreover,  the microplastics removed during are likely to be present in wastewater sludge, which may act as another medium for dissemination into the environment by using the sludge for agricultural purposes.  

In a worldwide study, 83% of tap water samples analysed contained microplastics, 99.7% of which were microfibres. Similarly, earlier research funded by the Water Research Commission revealed the presence of microplastics and microfibres in drinking water, groundwater and surface water in Gauteng. Still, the study found that levels of microfibres in surface water in SA were far lower than in other industrialised countries. But with further industrialisation, rapid urbanisation and the continued use of fast fashion, the levels of microfibres in surface and groundwater in SA are set to increase.

According to the World Health Organisation, the potential hazards associated with microplastics and fibres is multifaceted and complex. Microplastics can act as physical stressors, where they may be ingested by smaller organisms, resulting in possible adverse effects. Microfibres have been reported to pose a health threat to tiny organisms in water known as phytoplankton, and could eventually pose a threat to humans as a result of plastic entering the food chain. Microplastics are also thought to act as carriers of toxic chemicals and pathogens, thus serving as vectors and hosts for the entry of a cocktail of hazardous chemicals and pathogens into our bodies. The science on the risk of microplastics to human health is evolving, so it is important to continue implementing as many measures as possible.  

SA relies on surface water and groundwater sources for industry and domestic needs. It is therefore imperative that the necessary research is conducted to unequivocally determine the extent of the problem and implications of microfibres, and microplastics broadly, on ecosystems and human health. This research is important as it will ensure a balanced discussion on universal action plans required for dealing with microplastic pollution and informing public debate on the issues.

Many of the changes required to make the textile industry more sustainable rest with big manufacturers, but consumer behaviour and choices can make a fundamental difference. Buying less clothing — even if it is made with natural fibres — choosing brands with sustainability credentials, repairing, donating or even upcycling clothes into new products, will go a long way to transform the clothing and textile industries.

For their part, the clothing and textile industries must change their production processes and become part of the circular economy, where all products are sustainably manufactured to regenerate the environment and eliminate waste and pollution. As part of their sustainable business efforts, the industry must fund continuing research & development into sustainable large-scale production methods and alternative fibres such as bamboo, hemp and banana in place of synthetic fibres. Greater transparency in the clothing and textile industry is also required. For example, clothing labels should explicitly state how much plastic and water is used in a product, giving the consumer the choice to purchase an item containing less plastic or an alternative item. 

As we continue to better understand risks of microfibres and microplastics in general to the ecosystem and human health we urge manufacturers and consumers to get involved in Plastic Free July. As its theme states, “My Plastic Action Counts”. We can all be part of the solution by preventing the mismanagement of plastic, including how  we make, purchase, use and dispose of our clothing.

• Dr Ubomba-Jaswa and Dr Kalebaila are research managers at the Water Research Commission.

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