Itsy bitsy teeny weeny

I’ve been pleased to see over the past week that there has been a lot of publicity in the UK about plastic pollution in the seas. It seems that if David Attenborough highlights an issue, the public will finally sit up and take notice. Well, thank goodness someone has this power.

It’s relatively easy to show the horrible effects of things like plastic bags and balloons on sea creatures, but tiny fragments of plastic are a problem too and it’s these that I have been thinking about recently. Plastic fibres and microbeads enter the food chain at the smallest level and are particularly insidious – many plankton are unable to distinguish between plastic and real food, so ingest the former indiscriminately, potentially causing their guts to be blocked (you can read more about this and follow the linked references in this article).

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Pure woolly warmth

And so, I have been considering ways that I can reduce the tiny bits of plastic that I am responsible for in the environment. I’m not sure that I have ever used a product containing microbeads, and I certainly don’t use any now. I think that my biggest source of micro-plastics, therefore, is from fibres originating from fabrics. Years ago we were all delighted to wear garments made of synthetic fleece made from recycled plastics, but now we discover that every time we wash these clothes, we are putting more fibres into the water. So, no more fleece jumpers for me – my two new ones are both pure wool. The same is true for any manmade fibres and so I’m trying (mostly)  to phase them out. A while back I was happy to use upcycled acrylic yarn to make bath puffs, but now I think it’s best avoided. My new dishcloths are cotton and when we get round to replacing carpets and curtains they too will be made of natural fibres.

 

Now I think about it, I don’t know for sure the composition of any of the carpets in our house because they are the ones that were here when we moved in. I do know, however, that none of my curtains contain manmade fibres, so I can feel happy about those. And this brings me round to being concerned about how we dispose of items made of manmade fibres. If I decide that I would like to have a new wool carpet, what do I do with the old one of unknown composition? Similarly – is it better keep wearing my fleeces until they wear out and then replace them with something kinder to the environment or dispose of them right away so that I am not continuing to add to microplastic pollution? And if the latter, what do I do with them?

I don’t have any answers to these quandaries and I’m wondering what approach anyone else takes. Suggestions most welcome.

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29 Comments

  1. Ann Pole

     /  November 24, 2017

    I have been pondering this too. It’s the same with old, functioning but inefficient electrical items such as fridges & freezers. To keep the old one going or replace with one that uses a third of the electricity. Is an old item of clothing still shedding bits of plastic, or, many washes later, have they mostly gone? In which case I’d continue to use them. But as you say, how to dispose of them end of life? No idea.

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    • I’m assuming that fleeces just continue shedding fibres until there’s nothing left, but electrical items are, indeed, also a real concern. In the past we’ve used things until they break, because we’ve always thought that the embodied energy out-weighted the energy used to run them, but there must be a tipping point. I really don’t know and I have been thinking a lot about it all!

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  2. I have your very same thoughts… sorry that I cannot offer safe answers though.
    From a quick search, apparently it would actually get worse in clothing item lifetime: “It also found that older jackets shed almost twice as many fibers as new jackets” (life-mermaids.eu/en/about/news/ – I removed the http protocol from the link here, with the hope that WP will let it in my comment!). In there, they cite an article from the Guardian and the study funded by Patagonia (which I think we all heard of by now)

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  3. The thing is these things exist. No matter what we do the effects live on….. I have wondered if this is related to radioactive half lives – you know in terms of how long plastics take to break down once they have been produced and used and discarded. The half lives of ecological affects so to speak. The major importance lies in knowledge and life changes. ‘When we know better, we do better’ it’s a popular catch-phrase these days and it applies here. Where and how we spend our money affects future production choices. I think we make decisions now for the future and you are intent on doing the right thing and spreading the word and with this post asking questions that make us all think – and I thank you for that! In short – I have no clue 🙂

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  4. There are machines which can sort and extract the different textile fibres for recycling purposes. There’s also a company I’ve read about here in Australia which can recycle the ‘soft’ plastics, combining them with harder stuff to make fencing products, bridge planking and so on, items less likely to make it into the oceans. It would be nice to think that plastic-based clothing could be stabilised into something that is unlikely to become an ocean pollutant. Awareness is growing of the micro-fragment issue, so hopefully at some stage someone will have a lightbulb moment…

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  5. Why not write and ask the various suppliers and manufacturers how to dispose of them safely. They probably won’t know the answer but at least you may bring their responsibilty for producing them in the first place to their attention. The problem with all these new innovations and technologies is that not enough attention is given to side effects, let the polluter pay and deal with the issue.
    Can the offending items be repurposed? Fleeces to cushion inner maybe?

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    • I think that I may start a Twitter campaign – because it’s public, it seems to be more likely to generate a response. I did it in relation to disposable cups some months ago and got responses from Costa, Starbucks and Café Nero.

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  6. This is honestly such a huge issue and people don’t know enough about it. I’ve heard, like Kate, that there are some machines that allow you to trap those fibres so that they are not released in the water. I hope that a solution is found sooner than later

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    • A Twitter friend sent me this link: http://www.environmentalenhancements.com/index.html which I’ll look into in more detail, but I’m also wondering about this more low-tech approach: http://guppyfriend.com/en/

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      • I think that phrase about knowing better and doing better is key. We can’t undo (and shouldn’t feel guilty about) decisions we made in the past, but we can learn more in order to make better decisions in the future. I would think that whatever you do with your fleece will impact on the environment in some way (recycled to be used and washed by others, turned into landfill etc.) but if you keep it and wear it you will have control over that impact. The guppyfriend bag sounds like a great idea.

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      • Ann Pole

         /  November 26, 2017

        That looks good. Think I’ll get one too.

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      • It’s interesting because the washing bag is polyamide, I wonder if that might lose fibres too eventually. But at the same time the steel tube looks a bit harder to install and is obviously more expensive but might be worth the investment. Thanks a lot for sharing, it’s definitely food for thoughts

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        • There’s lots of info about shedding from the bag – apparently because it is made from monofibre, there are not the little bits to shed in the same way. The tape on the seams may shad a little, but, as they say in the blurb, this is the best they can do at present and they are working on a better solution whilst encouraging more use of natural fibres so that problem eventually disappears.

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  7. I think we all have the same concerns and feelings of guilt about the impact our purchasing decisions have on the environment, especially so as more information comes to light – whoever knew micro beads even existed until recently? Being responsible for what we do in the future is the best we can do, but I can’t help much with what do do with carpets of unknown composition, I’m afraid. I think using your current fleeces until they wear out is probably the best thing to do – buying a natural replacement is an unnecessary acquisition which is something we’re trying to reduce. We could worry ourselves to death over such heavy burdens of responsibility, but little changes will have big impact, I’m sure.

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  8. Thanks for this insight and for introducing me to guppy bags.

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  9. Thank you so much for posting about this issue. It’s been on my mind for years, more and more lately. I did avoid fleece for the most part, in spite of being told it was a good way to recycle plastic pop bottles. But I have a couple of jackets now. I don’t wear them often and as I take good care of my clothes, I don’t wash them often either. That statement about them shedding more as they age scares me, though. Mine may become pillow innards in a while, thanks to the comment above.

    I think what I feel most guilty about is the amount of acrylic yarn I’ve used during my life; mostly because it usually was the only sort that fit my budget and I couldn’t face doing nothing at all. The items I made were mostly afghans and I doubt they will be washed often, certainly not as often as clothing, but still . . .

    This is part of the reason why I am slowly shifting to using only cotton and woolen yarns (and maybe one day silk and linen, should I be so lucky). The tuques I’m making are acrylic, though; I find that most people don’t want to handwash wool and I didn’t think it through; I could have used sock yarn that is meant to be washed in a machine.

    As to your carpets; I don’t know if this is damaging to the earth or not (probably is), but I thought of cutting them into long strips and using them to cover paths where one doesn’t want weeds to grow. Or maybe they can be used to insulate a henhouse, for instance. I doubt that old carpets are still out-gassing much, if at all. Or use them to insulate a Wendy house for grandchildren. You may not wish to do this yourself, but perhaps you can find someone who would. I would even use that sort of thing to insulate a Tiny House for myself, given the chance. At least it would postpone the time when they would break down and re-enter the ecological system.

    I disposed of a small freezer this summer by giving it to a man who uses parts to fixup other things. I took two large mattresses to the dump here (and had to pay $15 each to do so). They had been in my storage for 20 years without covers (it was meant to be only a few months at most). I acquired them free from a hotel that replaces its mattresses every three years, thanks to a friend who worked there at the time. But apart from being old and likely quite dusty, they are simply too big. I prefer narrow beds.

    It’s a thorny problem, isn’t it? And the whole electronics issue is scary as well. One of my nephews is a computer whiz with a degree. In his ‘spare’ time (he has a wife and two children under 4 besides working over an hour’s drive from his home) he fixes up old computers and laptops and either gives them to someone in need or sells them at a price they can afford. At least it keeps them out of the landfill for a while longer.

    Thanks again. I like your idea of starting a Twitter campaign (Facebook, too?) I found you on Twitter on my phone, but when I click the Follow button, it says ‘no longer exists’ in spite of you having posted only hours before. It’s either my old phone or, more likely, that facr that we have a hill between us and the cell tower so that I get a ‘lost network’ message every two minutes or more. I’ll try to connect via the laptop in a bit. Thanks again. We all need to think about these things and also share the concerns. While staying hopeful and positive. Piece of cake, right? ~ Linne

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    • Yesterday I ordered a Guppy bag to use when washing items that may shed fibres. Like you, I have a couple of fleece jackets, but don’t wash them often, but I also have three ancient fleece jumpers that are probably a disaster. Probably one last wash and then I’ll convert them into stuffing for a dog bed.
      I felt very guilty last year when I replaced my computer, but since using it is the way I earn my living I had no choice. Having said that, the old one had been repaired several times and I had just about destroyed the keyboard!!

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  10. I’ve been thinking about this the last few days, what to do with the things I want to get rid of in order to be more eco-friendly.
    Is the initial badness of getting rid cancelled out by the green-ness of new things? I have SO MUCH acrylic yarn, how can I dispose of it without doing even more damage? It’s so tricky.

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  11. there was a kickstarter campaign for balls called Cora Balls which catch microfibers in your washing machine, while washing. I haven’t received mine yet, but am eager to test it!

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  12. NIkki

     /  December 4, 2017

    These are difficult choices to make. When our 15 year old inefficient fridge freezer needed yet further remedial work, we decided it was finally time to replace it with a super efficient new model that should hopefully last even longer. Amazingly, within the first year of using the new fridge freezer, we’d managed to shave off over a third of our electricity bill. And with each passing year, the savings add up. Savings which also mean we’re contributing less to carbon dioxide – our energy supply is made up of both gas & electricity, neither of which is 100% green (such tariffs have only more recently become available) so the less we use, the better. Is this the greenest choice we could have made at the time? Hard to say, as there are so many different factors at play: the desire for carbon reduction as well as limiting water/soil/air pollution; the frugal motivation to maximise use of existing objects in the home while minimising their environmental impact…on balance, it was the reasonable thing to do at the time.
    Old synthetic clothing, on the other hand, I am far more inclined to pass on for recycling/re-purposing, as soon as they start to show signs of wear & tear. Coupled with strictly limiting new purchases to natural fibres, this means I also shop far less frequently, and buy very little. However, there are dangers here too: the processing of cotton is famously polluting & resource intensive…there are no easy answers.
    However, I have two suggestions:
    1. Wherever possible, plant indigenous trees/shrubs & encourage others to do the same – it’s a great carbon sink & healthy to have wildlife supporting greenery around.
    2. Wherever possible, acquire/buy/borrow locally made/sourced/processed items: the shorter the distance between the natural material & the finished product, the better.

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  13. NIkki

     /  December 4, 2017

    ps. I went to a conference years ago where a carpet company (can’t remember the name!) were showcasing their new ‘cradle-to-cradle’ production cycle claiming that 100% of their old carpets could be safely re-cycled into new carpets. These carpets were made of mixed materials, so it was clearly not a straightforward process. Might be worth asking any carpet manufacturers/sellers in your area if they can do the same?

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  1. an itsy bitsy update | The Snail of Happiness

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