At Thread, we believe that we can end poverty through dignified, sustainable jobs. We also believe that waste can be used as a valuable resource, which will fuel these jobs. As such, we make transparent, purpose-filled recycled polyester yarn which goes into products made by some of the most well known and iconic brands in the world. Our supply chains divert waste from the streets, canals, beaches, of some of the poorest countries in the world. This also means, our supply chains end up diverting a lot of waste from the oceans. Sometimes this feels like a thankless task:
Ah, Dearest Commenter, as we celebrate World Oceans Day today, we thought we’d try and Greensplain, to clear up some misconceptions and offer some real advice around this issue moving forward.
WTF Is Ocean Plastic?
Ocean Plastic has become the avocado toast of recycled plastic – especially in the recycled polyester space. It’s all over Instagram, and the general consensus seems to be that products made from “ocean plastic” is somehow better than any other recycled plastic. But let’s talk a bit about ocean plastic. Plastic that is legitimately floating in the ocean, swirling out in the great gyres, is generally so degraded due to sunlight and salt that the material is seriously compromised and it’s utility is worthless. Furthermore, the amount of energy and money that would need to be invested to go out to sea, capture this material, and bring it back to land would render that material so expensive that no one could afford to work with it, much less buy it.
So usually, ocean plastic is in fact gathered through volunteer beach clean-ups and has been washed there from nearby streets and canals. If we were being accurate, we’d call it “beach plastic” but that doesn’t have as good of a ring to it. Utilizing volunteer collection does not improve the economies of the communities this plastic is coming from, nor offer income opportunities from this material to the people that live there.
Finally, all ocean plastic starts on the land. Asking “how do we clean up the oceans?” is the wrong question. We need to focus instead on building systems that prevent waste from reaching them in the first place. Otherwise, we’ll be facing a sisyphean task of slowly scooping up a couple of thousands pounds of waste washed up on beaches while millions of pounds continue to wash out to sea.
Micro-Fiber vs. Micro-Plastic
Now let’s talk about the other issue du jour, microfibers. Microfibers are a real problem. You won’t find a person at Thread who doesn’t believe that they are a real threat or that we shouldn’t work to find solutions.
Micro-plastics do not only enter the ocean from washing your clothes. They get there from plastic bottles and packaging breaking down into smaller pieces in the salt water. They get there from the micro beads in your face wash after you’ve washed that down the drain. They get there from your spit out chewing gum. By keeping bigger pieces of plastic out of the ocean, our supply chains are still preventing more plastic per volume from entering into the ocean, even when you account for micro fiber waste. Considering there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 and microfiber is a small percentage of that, our focus should be on the bigger problem.
Also – Every. Fiber. Sheds. Every single one. And while the micro-sheddings from cotton or rayon may break down more quickly than plastic, the chemicals and solvents that get released with them are also causing impact. So unless you have a natural garment that you finished and dyed yourself with beet juice, or you’re a nudist, don’t tell me how you’re not having any impact on the environment when you wash your clothes.
As a sidenote, Cotton is linked to deforestation, pesticide poisoning, and slave labor, and rayon is destroying the rainforests and requires actual acid to process it into fiber – so natural fibers are not all that great for our planet when produced at volume either. There is no perfect or neutral impact fiber or fabric.
There will be no environmental justice without social justice. To treat the two movements as separate is misguided and damaging. At Thread, we recognize the social impacts of recycling – where are the bottles coming from? Who is picking them up? Are their lives better because of this? How can we help to support and grow business around this renewable resource in places where many natural resources have been depleted and exploited? – are just as important as the fact that we are preventing bottles from reaching the ocean.
If we want to save the planet, we need to make it possible for all people to participate.
This commenter asks a great question – what happens to clothing when it is too old for use? I would argue that very few of us actually keep and wear clothing to a point where it becomes too old for use from a quality standpoint, but I also understand the desire to update your wardrobe. Just aim to get your 30 wears in first. And then, when you’re done with your Thread-branded boots, bags, and apparel – send it back to us. We’ll keep that material in circulation and ensure it remains useful rather than sitting in a landfill.
Polyester is a huge opportunity to do some good
For all the conspiracy theories and bemoaning of synthetic textiles from the “deep green” crowd, polyester is the most ubiquitous textile material. The biggest trend in apparel – “athleisure” – isn’t going away and yoga pants from hemp just don’t make your ass look as good as those made from polyester. Cotton can’t clothe the world and we need to stop trying make bamboo happen. It’s not going to happen. Polyester will exist and imagine if 100% of it was recycled material rather than made from virgin petroleum? If that material can also lift thousands of families out of poverty, then shouldn’t we harness that opportunity?
How we can actually solve the micro-plastic AND microfiber issue
I’d like to conclude with our opinion on how we actually help the oceans. As I stated above, the microfiber threat is real, but it’s also not hopeless. Here’s a list of actions you can take in addition to writing outraged comments on facebook:
1) Read this informative and helpful post written by our friends at Patagonia who brought this issue to the public’s attention last summer and who continue to lead research into microfibers so that we can take effective steps to address it.
2) Purchase filters and equipment for your washing machine to effectively capture microfibers.
3) While your purchasing those filters – maybe reach out to your preferred appliance brand and ask what steps they are taking to build better filtration into the washing machines we are purchasing.
4) Wastewater treatment facilities also play a huge role in the distribution of micro-plastic particles into the oceans. Some countries, like Sweden, are quite effective at releasing very low amounts of microfibers from their wastewater treatment facilities. We should be putting pressure on our government and municipalities to look into the effectiveness of filtration at these plants and push for them to make improvements. We know it can be done – other parts of the world are already doing it. We should too.
5) Pay attention to what you buy and where it comes from. Don’t wash your clothes until you have to. Help to lift coastal communities out of poverty so that we can all be good stewards of our oceans.
As the oceans go, so goes the planet, the place we all live. Here are some easy actions you can take on World Oceans Day. And don’t forget, caring means more than sharing.