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Patrick Grubbs headshot

It Turns Out Swimsuits Are Shedding Hidden Microplastics

Swimwear often tends towards minimalism in an aesthetic sense, but their design involves the use of materials with maximum strength - and therefore are contributing to the surge in microplastics ending up in our oceans.
By Patrick Grubbs
Swimwear often tends towards minimalism in an aesthetic sense, but their design involves the use of materials with maximum strength - and therefore are contributing to the surge in microplastics ending up in our oceans.

Swimwear often trends toward minimalism in an aesthetic sense, but their design involves the use of materials with maximum strength—and therefore are contributing to the surge in microplastics ending up in our oceans.

With warmer weather finally returning, people are breaking out the beach towels and sunscreen. The spring and summer fashion seasons are in full swing, and sales of swimwear this time of year are naturally on the uptick.

Although the fashion industry is notorious for wasteful practices, swimwear is rarely called out as a culprit. To bring attention to the potential impact of producing—and using—swimwear, the fashion label Reformation is calling out . . . themselves.

An Instagram post announcing Reformation's new swimwear line reads, “This swimsuit is not sustainable enough. But it’s the best we can do right now.”

Wait, what's wrong with my swimwear? 

Swimwear often trends toward minimalism in an aesthetic sense, but the design of these garments is anything but. They have to endure harsh conditions that everyday clothing does not—saltwater, chlorine or bromine, direct sun exposure, and the mechanical abrasion of waves and sand. All of these cause the fabrics to degrade rapidly through either chemical or physical processes.

Few people (outside of the fast fashion industry) buy clothes to wear only a few times, so clothing manufacturers are incentivized to make swimwear tough enough to stand up to the elements. The only materials that will last through repeated uses are synthetic fabrics like nylon, spandex, lycra, and polyester.

In addition to their strength, elasticity and low production costs, synthetic fibers have another thing in common—they are comprised of plastic or polyurethane, and therefore break down into microplastics as they degrade.

Reformation's swimwear line, for example, utilizes a recycled fiber made from things like fishing nets and industrial plastic. But it's essentially nylon, meaning it can shed microplastics in the washing machine, which go on to enter local waterways. "When you wash anything made from synthetics, even recycled materials, tiny bits of plastic called microfibers are shed into the environment," the brand explained in a media release, as quoted by the online magazine Fashionista

The low-down on microplastics 

Microplastics can’t be easily dismissed as “nature’s problem." The insidious fragments have already flooded the ocean in uncountable amounts, showing up everywhere from beaches to the bottom of the Marinas Trench, the deepest point in the ocean. Autopsies of sea creatures often reveal alarming amounts of manmade plastic in their digestive tracts—which, of course, can often lead to their cause of death. Some microplastics are so small they can wind up in the blood and muscles of animals.

Which, in turn, means that those plastics have infiltrated into our human food system. Even processing fish won’t strip out the plastics that have made their way into the meat. Microplastics from food have been confirmed in people, prompting frantic research into the health effects. We understand very little about the impact of microplastics in the human body, but judging by their effects on wildlife, the prognosis isn’t good.

In addition, though microplastics are present in municipal water systems across the United States, many water treatment plants are only equipped to filter out particles of a certain size. In other words: Even if you’re not eating it, you’re probably drinking it.

So, how do bikinis and other swimwear fit into this grim picture? The world produces 80 billion new articles of clothing each year, and about 60 percent of them are synthetic. That represents an enormous annual influx of microplastics into the ocean, as wastewater from washing machines makes its way into local waterways and eventually to the ocean. We can’t address ocean pollution without considering the significant burden the textile industry imposes.

Addressing microplastics pollution in the fashion industry

An obvious solution is to minimize the use of synthetic fibers. As far as swimwear is concerned, however, natural fibers won’t cut it. Cotton and wool are neither appropriate for in-water use nor durable enough to stand up to the many stressors of the environment. Similar obstacles exist for active-wear and sport clothing.

Some brands recognize these challenges and opt for a compromise. Making clothes out of natural fibers, or even reusing synthetic fibers like recycled nylon, and reinforcing them with virgin synthetics can increase the longevity of a piece while reducing its impact. After all, making pseudo-disposable clothes out of solely natural fibers is just kicking the pollution can down the road. There’s a tradeoff between making clothes out of synthetic fibers and keeping clothes out of landfills.

The news isn’t all bad. Sustainability is becoming trendy, believe it or not, and the fashion industry is certainly not above capitalizing on trends. Customers are increasingly gravitating toward brands that display their eco-friendly initiatives. Many brands are offering to repair their clothing for free and reaping the brand affinity that can follow. Some fashion companies have even committed to full-circularity, a huge step in the right direction.

In the end, if apparel giants like Nike are making the switch to a circular clothing system, then even smaller brands will find the necessary infrastructure already in place, smoothing the transition to a more sustainable fashion industry. And when labels like Reformation step into the fray and point out room for improvement, it certainly raises the bar. 

Image credit: Pixabay

Patrick Grubbs headshot

Patrick Grubbs is an environmental writer with a keen interest in the interactions between people and ecosystems. Past work includes projects to integrate permaculture into architecture, community education of urban agriculture, and published research in aquatic ecology. He is currently based in Philadelphia, but spends most of his time traveling abroad.

Read more stories by Patrick Grubbs