the plastic we wear …

On August 15, 2012
Well into the twentieth century, clothes were pricey and precious enough that they were mended and cared for and reimagined countless times, and most people had a few outfts that they wore until they wore them out. How things have changed. We’ve gone from making good use of the clothes we own to buying things we’ll never or barely wear. We are caught in a cycle of consumption and waste that is unsettling at best and I think unsatisfying at its core.
Elizabeth Cline, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

Dress made from plastic bottles in the costume exhibition at the 2011 Prague Quadrennial

I need to buy new yoga pants; there’s a lot out there, but I’m pretty fussy – about what it looks like, how it feels, what it’s made from. I’d like to buy fair trade, organic, all-natural fibre, non-toxic dyes and without formaldehyde and plasticisers added to make the clothes stay fresh and wrinkle-free on the shop rack. But in this age of supposed consumer choice, it’s not as easy as one might think …

Most yoga pants are made of a combination of cotton and elastane (aka spandex, lycra, etc); elastane is important as it enables the fabric to stretch without losing its shape – but what exactly is it? After a bit of online research, I learned that elastane is a “polyurethane-polyurea copolymer”, first synthesised in 1937 but not used until the 1950s; it’s one of a number of synthetic fibres which are made from raw materials such as petroleum-based chemicals or petrochemicals, and its properties include abrasion resistance, washability, and resistance to perspiration and oils, making it an appealing fibre for sportswear. Since I really don’t want to buy or wear clothes made from petrochemicals, I went on a mission for elastane-free yoga pants; but after an extensive search, the only ones I could find that were really free of elastane or other synthetic fibres were the very loose, baggy style – which I don’t like and which are not so practical for yoga.

What about yoga pants made from recycled plastic bottles – surely that’s a good thing, environmentally at least? (What effect the plastic might have on our skin is a whole other question). In one shop I saw garments with large lables boasting about how many PET bottles they have kept out of landfills and oceans. Outdoor clothing company Patagonia have been using this kind of material for years, and now most of the major brands of sports clothing have jumped on the band wagon. Being ahead of the wagon, Patagonia are already touting the “reduce, repair, reuse, recycle” mantra and offering repair services and tips on how to care for your garments so that they last longer, but most other companies are still at the “buy this and feel better about discarding your plastic bottles!” stage.

On the surface, it looks like a win-win situation – keep the plastic out of the environment and get high-performing cheap clothes. However, every time these recycled plastic clothes are washed, around 2000 tiny plastic microfibres are released into the washing water and end up … in the ocean, mostly; nicely pre-broken-down to a size that can directly enter the food chain. So rather than keeping plastic out of the environment, it’s effectively removing some of the degradation steps and speeding up the increase of microplastics (less than 5mm long) in oceans and landfills. If you need more convincing science, here are some links:

It’s all fairly depressing. In situations like this I think, “what did we do in the old days?” We didn’t have nice, comfortable, sexy, stretchy sports clothes, and we didn’t even know we were missing out. As late as 1980, in phys-ed classes at my school the girls wore cotton “rompers” which had been sewn up at home by our highly-skilled mothers – red shorts with yellow stripes at the side and elastic in the leg to create the bloomer effect (and ensure no glimpse of underwear would be afforded!); there was no stretch at all in these garments and, from memory, they were quite functional (though hardly fashionable, at that time). The other thing we didn’t have back then was an excess of disposable plastic bottles. You refilled the same drink bottle every day for years and did your best not to lose it, because replacement was not done lightly. On picnics and car trips, the grown-ups had a thermos of hot water for their tea or coffee, and the kids had cordial or raro in our school drink bottles. Soft drinks were a rare treat and came in glass bottles, which when you took back to the shop earned you a whole 5 cents! Today in Germany, many glass bottles and jars can be returned with a “pfand” (refund), even some plastic bottles; but globally, plastic bottles constitute a large and growing percentage of the waste stream. Recycling them into clothing may reduce the visible polution, but it doesn’t solve the problem – it’s just another rearrangement.

The root of the problem is the production of the bottles themselves; as bottled drink companies seek to increase their profits by selling more and more product, they invent new drinks – from high-energy sports drinks to flavoured water for the “au naturel” consumer – and all of these drinks need new bottle shapes and designs. And as the bottles pile up around us, savvy entrepreneurs invent new products – such as fabric and garmets – that generate more profit for corporations from this plastic rubbish. But at the end of the day, the plastic still ends up in the environment, in one form or another. Plastic that in most cases (such as excessive packaging) we didn’t even need in the first place, and now we can’t get rid of it; all to increase corporate profits.

So: it seems impossible to find yoga pants that I like with NO elastane in them. I have t-shirts that are 100% cotton, so somewhere there must be yoga pants that are also 100% cotton – but will they sag in the bottom and the knees after a short time? And what about the environmental cost of cotton? It requires so much water … ok, can I find 100% organic bamboo yoga pants then? Except bamboo fabric often comes from Asian countries that have less stringent laws about chemical pesticides … and so on. When it comes down to it, we consumers don’t really have the choices that we want. Finally, I’ve settled for 95% cotton, 5% elastane, and I’ll wash them as infrequently as possible.

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