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IMA > News  > Fashion Industry Hidden Secrets that Adversely Impacts our Ocean

Fashion Industry Hidden Secrets that Adversely Impacts our Ocean

By Tershyan Russell, OJT Library Assistant

Did you know that clothing often poses a threat to the ocean? No?  Think a bit! Clothing is often part of one’s identity. It represents unique lifestyle, preferences, and it gives an indication of the kind of weather most commonplace in the areas where we live. Clothing can also give insight into how environmentally sensitive a community is.  

More and more scientists are finding bits and remains of fabric in places of the marine environment where no humans live. According to CP3 Concordia (2023), the fashion industry, especially ‘fast fashion’, uses cheap, toxic textile dyes and synthetic fabrics in their pieces, which contains microplastics.  Microplastics are tiny plastic particles of five millimetres and less, that are broken down by natural “wear and tear” from larger commercially produced plastic products.  And several studies show that 35% of the microplastics found in oceans are derived from synthetic fabrics such as nylon, polyester, denim and acrylic.  Scientists have even documented some of these specific microplastics thousands of miles away from the nearest human civilization. 

IMA Staff in Taking Action: Cleaning Up Our Beautiful Foreshore!

How do these microplastics make it to the ocean? According to Ocean Wash Clean (2023), when clothes are laundered; microplastics or microfibers are released into the water, which moves along our wastewater from washing machines, to drains, canals, ultimately flowing into streams, rivers and finally our oceans. Scientists have found that one load of laundry can discharge over seven hundred thousand (700,000) microfibers.  Additionally, though many waste water systems may have water filters, microplastics are sometimes microscopic, making it easier for them to pass through filters, thereby entering our oceans. 

What is the impact of all of this, you may ask? When microplastics enter the oceans, marine organisms can potentially mistake the plastics for food due to their size and often opaque nature, consuming them. For example, according to Spotmydive (2017) when fish consume too much plastic, this can cause a buildup in their digestive systems, which may reduce their food intake, eventually leading to starvation and death. Studies show that plastic pollution kills one hundred thousand (100,000) marine mammals every year including as many as one million (1 mil) seabirds.      

Furthermore, plastics also pose a threat to already sensitive marine ecosystems such as coral reefs, which, according to the United Nations Environment Programme’s 2020 status report on the world’s coral reefs, have declined by as much as fourteen percent (14%) between 2009 and 2018.  Microplastics can also suffocate and kill corals, increasing the corals susceptibility to disease.  According to a 2023 peer-reviewed article led by head author, Naimur Rahman, microplastics reduces reproduction, growth and damages the coral’s tissues.  

The beauty of coral reefs are undisputed. They, however, serve a far more important purpose than aesthetics. As living organisms, they provide a habitat for marine biodiversity.  Their destruction can lead to the degradation of marine ecosystems and even extinction of some marine species, which will adversely affect the human food chain. Reefs are host to the juveniles of a number of commercially important species of fish, crustaceans, mollusks and more. Reefs also host marine organisms that may have the answers to certain human diseases locked within their DNA.

So, what can you do to ensure your laundered and/or discarded clothing are not adding to the marine pollution and the declining health of our oceans? Firstly, purchase clothing made out of natural materials, like cotton, wool and bamboo.  Yes, believe it or not, there are some clothing that have been made from bamboo.  It may be difficult getting clothing of 100% natural materials, but aim for at least 50%, it is a start!  Secondly, one can become involved in thrifting, by purchasing second-hand clothing. Reusing reduces waste and the amount of pollutants that can make their way to our oceans. Thirdly, why not donate your used clothing to our local charities such as: The Salvation Army, The Living Water Community and Is There Not A Cause? (ITNAC) among others.  Thirdly, there are opportunities to be found in upcycling and repurposing clothing. The creative entrepreneurs amongst us, can quite possibly enable new areas of commerce and industry as they work to conserve the marine and coastal environment.  For the less creative among us why not upcycle by turning an old t-shirt into a crop top and a shirt into scarf?  And for those handy with a sewing machine, try repurposing a pair of old denim jeans into a tote bag and old shirts or sweaters into a tablecloth or blanket.

Fourthly, volunteer for beach clean-ups. Among the discarded articles on beaches and along riverbanks are bits of clothing, slippers, and the like. On Saturday 16th September, 2023, the Ministry of Planning and Development, the Environmental Management Authority and the Institute of Marine Affairs pooled their manpower for the annual International Coastal Cleanup, along the Foreshore in Port of Spain. They collected eleven (11) garbage bags of trash weighing in at one hundred and forty (140) pounds.

All these suggestions will no doubt aid in reducing marine pollution. Sometimes big challenges may seem insurmountable. But as the Chinese proverb says “A journey of one thousand (1,000) miles begins with the first step!  Let us all commit to cleaning up and protecting our marine and coastal spaces and the biodiversity that make those habitats home.