The Short and Storied Life of Synthetic Textiles

How Plastics Have Forever Changed Our Economies and Oceans

Writer: Miranda Hitchens
Editor: Sophie Maho Chan
Artist: Qiwen Liu

In October of 1938, DuPont Chemical unveiled its newest invention: Nylon. A product of early man-made materials devised throughout the late 19th century, the 11-year project to perfect a synthetic silk came to commercial fruition with the nylon stocking, hitting the US consumer market in 1940. They were a near-immediate success and saw a surge in demand among women due to the rapid decline of Japanese silk imports as the Second World War progressed. However, their production all but ceased following the United States’ official entry into the war effort.

Despite this commercial void, nylon production skyrocketed, as infrastructure was swiftly developed to mass-produce the fibre for parachutes, tow ropes, and other military supplies. Synthetic alternatives to other materials, such as rubber and plastic, also became highly sought-after, replacing more expensive resources used in everything from weapons to food packaging. Teflon, now used to make non-stick pans, originally lined the valves and seals of the atomic bomb. As a result, plastic production nearly quadrupled during the war, inciting the advent of its mass production that has continued growing in scale to this day. 

Postwar, plastic began to dominate the fashion industry. Synthetic materials are not only cheaper, but more versatile in their properties than traditional fabrics. This enabled retailers to scale up production exponentially and sell clothes at lower price points, creating the economic prerequisites for what is now known as the “fast fashion” industry. Nowadays, around 60% of textiles used in clothing are composed of synthetic materials. By condensing trend cycles and decreasing the durability of accessible clothing, the rising prevalence of synthetic alternatives has disincentivised the reuse and retention of clothes. Unsurprisingly, this generates vast amounts of waste, with an average of 37kg of clothing thrown away per person each year in the United States.

Despite how ubiquitous plastics are in the modern world, only 4% of all petroleum extracted annually is used to produce these plastics–and of that, only 14.5% is used in textiles. In fact, outside of the more apparent environmental damage brought on by petrochemical extraction, synthetic fibres present a whole new method of destruction.

When synthetic fibres are machine washed, thousands of microscopic to centimeter-length microplastics break off from the fibres, evading filtration and eventually draining into rivers and oceans with treated wastewater. Although it is near impossible to quantify the pollution entering marine ecosystems, recent data conservatively estimates around 35,500 tonnes of microplastics are floating in the world’s oceans, originating from textiles as well as other plastic waste discarded into the sea.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an estimated 1.6 million square kilometre mass of floating plastic in the North Pacific, consists mainly of microplastics and commercial fishing nets accumulating on and below the water’s surface. It acts as a thick translucent layer, almost invisible at first, but blocking sunlight from reaching the plankton and algae that depend on it to photosynthesise. Microplastics ingested by these organisms pass along food chains, and thus are found in the stomachs of marine life around the globe. They have reached every corner of the natural world, from Arctic ice to the Mariana Trench, and account for 85% of man-made material found along beaches. Even perched at the top of the food chain, a human ingests an average of 5,800 synthetic fibres a year. Recent studies have even found microplastics in human placentas and lung tissue, though it isn’t yet known what specific health effects this may incur. 

What’s particularly ominous about the ever-growing presence of microplastics is their near-invisibility to the naked eye, and in turn, the public’s image of plastic pollution. The idea that washing your clothes releases plastic waste, or that a country-sized aggregation of it would barely be visible from the ocean’s surface, is difficult to comprehend, even to the environmentally conscious. Meanwhile, there is no large-scale, efficient way to remove or mitigate microplastic pollution, so it will continue inundating our ecosystems, all while there is no existing method with which to understand the long term ramifications of this contamination. 

This story is one with no end in sight, as plastics have become indispensable to the fashion industry and inescapable in the environment. Industry standards have become so interwoven with plastic production that decoupling them would require complete restructuring of manufacturing processes globally. In parallel, societal norms have been inexorably grafted onto consumerist ideals. Cheap clothes are a necessity, both to sustain the way our economy is organised and the lives we expect to live. Nylon put silk in the hands of every woman, and the synthetic materials that followed gave the expectation of an endless choice of products to every customer. 

In order to confront the growing threat of unchecked plastic pollution, how much of our definition of modern life must we uproot? Like every aspect of this story, there aren’t any concrete answers, but we may come to find ourselves unwittingly fulfilling the ever-prescient myth of Hubris–we thought it possible and necessary to mold ourselves a new world of infinite possibilities to consume, only to find it hurtling towards potential catastrophe. 

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