The size of bedroom closets has expanded over the years with the rise in clothing purchases. Worldwide, the demand and manufacture of garments have been increasing and will continue to grow, especially those made from synthetic fabrics. More and more clothing and other fabric-based products will be made from polyester, nylon and other petroleum-based resources, as opposed to those made from natural-based products, such as cotton, wool, and jute if the world continues on the current trajectory. In addition, the more frequently purchased garments are now thrown away to a greater degree, an unfortunate sign of disrespect for gifts of Creation. The more we partake in disposable options, the less we view the earth as part of God’s Creation, where all materials are valuable. Digging massive holes in the ground for our waste should be the last option for our belongings. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Americans throw away around 80 pounds of clothes every year. Discarded clothes make up more than 9% of municipal waste. More and more of these materials are plastic (polyester, nylon, etc), which pollute the earth almost beyond description since they do not decompose.
I have been writing a chapter with a few colleagues on the scientific studies that have been conducted around the world on microplastics (plastic materials smaller than 5 mm in diameter) in freshwater. The microfibers from fabrics, such as clothing, blankets, upholstery, toys and other goods, are the most frequently detected microplastics. All the places where surface freshwater was examined contained microplastics. The locations include the US/Canadian Great Lakes, major rivers in China and France and remote lakes in Italy, among many others. Why are these synthetic microfibers found in every studied river, lake and stream? Fabrics shed an immense amount. Every load of laundry generates thousands of microfibers, and a large percentage are plastic-based. Another large factor in this pollution is the affordability and availability of clothing, whether in stores or now online. Plentiful and inexpensive clothing has been part of “advanced” society’s lifestyle for quite a while. Clothing affordability is associated with the use of petroleum for synthetic fabrics and the exploitation of cheap labor in other countries.
The clothing industry creates other types of pollution. According to a study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 73 percent of the total materials used in clothing manufacturing were incinerated or landfilled in 2015. The study also determined that the textile industry produces more greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change than flights and maritime shipping combined. As more people learn about the damaging effects of the current system of clothing manufacturing and sales, ethical and eco fashions become desirable. Since most clothing is recyclable, society/companies can find ways to shift current habits to those that respect materials, divert from petroleum-based fabrics and reduce waste. As always, we all have a part in the care of Creation. A responsible, “advanced” society finds ways to honor the gifts of creation and makes adjustments when current systems are damaging to the greater good.
Julie Peller Ph.D. is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ) and she leads the Environmental Ministry at Nativity of Our Savior in Portage IN. Julie has been writing a weekly column for church bulletins for the past ~5 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are in Advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), student and citizen participation in environmental work.