- Most of the 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic ever produced still exist in some form today.
- The fashion industry is a major contributor to plastic pollution through the production of synthetic polymer fibers and packaging.
- Increasing consumer awareness about plastic pollution is leading many large fashion brands and innovative startup companies to use upcycled plastic waste as an alternative product material.
Plastic pollution is a big problem. Along with climate change, oceanic plastic pollution is seen by many as a prevailing crisis of our time.1 With more and more plastic entering our oceans, untold amounts of damage and suffering are inflicted upon innocent marine creatures.
However, unlike climate change, the solutions to solving plastic pollution are relatively simple… we know what to do!1 While the fashion industry has played its part in contributing to the current crises, mainly through packaging and the production of synthetic fibers, efforts are now being made to help reverse that trend.
In this article, we will take a closer look at the scientific evidence of oceanic plastic pollution along with the innovative approaches that conscientious fashion producers are taking to help solve the problem.
Plastic Pollution: Key Facts & Figures
- Plastic as we know it first appeared in the early 1950s.2 Back then, plastic was not seen as the problem it is today. In fact, previous generations celebrated what became known as the “throwaway lifestyle”.3 Since then, approximately 8.3 billion tonnes of it has been produced. That is similar to the weight of one billion elephants or 47 million blue whales.4
- Because of its durability, almost all of the plastic ever produced still exists in some form today. Of the 8.3 billion tonnes produced to date, 6.3 billion tonnes (79 percent) is now in landfills or the natural environment. Of the remaining 21 percent, 12 percent was incinerated with only nine percent getting recycled.5
- Scientists estimate that up to 700 marine species have been affected by plastic pollution.6 Even crustaceans at the deepest depths of the oceans show evidence of plastic ingestion.7
- Major drink manufacturers produce 500 billion plastic bottles annually.4 That equates to:8
- 1,000,000 plastic bottles sold every minute.
- 20,000 plastic bottles sold per second.
- Less than 50 percent collected for recycling.
- Only seven percent turned into new bottles.
- People living in coastal regions of low-income economies are most at risk from the impact of plastic pollution.9 This problem is further exacerbated by wealthy countries exporting plastic waste to poor countries with inadequate waste management capabilities.4
- Thankfully, things are improving, albeit rather slowly. Using 2017 as a base year, the global plastic recycling market size is set to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6.1 percent for the years 2018 to 2025.10
The following footage, narrated by Sir David Attenborough on Blue Planet II, is a stark reminder of the crisis at hand.11
Fashion Industry Contribution to Plastic Pollution
Much of the plastic pollution generated by the fashion industry relates to packaging. However, many people are unaware that modern fabrics also contain significant amounts of plastic. For example, polyester, a product derived from the manufacture of plastic, accounts for more than 60 percent of the global fiber market. This modern synthetic textile can be manufactured to replicate an array of other natural fibers in a cost-effective manner.12
By analyzing the data sector-by-sector, we can see that in 2015 textiles (excluding packaging) accounted for 47 million tonnes of plastic production. Meanwhile, the textiles industry was also responsible for 38 million tonnes of plastic waste that year (again, excluding packaging). Therefore, we can conclude that in recent years, plastics created for the textile industry have been recycled at a rate of only 20 percent. This data is presented in the graphs below relative to other industrial sectors.13
Image 1: Data courtesy of Our World in Data.13
Image 2: Data courtesy of Our World in Data.13
Side-note: In 2010, the global primary production of plastic was 270 million tonnes. That same year, the amount of plastic waste generated globally was 275 million tonnes. The extra five million tonnes of waste is attributed to plastic production from previous years.13
Developing Solutions to Plastic Pollution
With plastic pollution now recognized as a global crisis, new technologies, awareness campaigns, and international resolutions are being developed to help alleviate the problem. For example, at the end of 2017, ministers at the U.N. Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, passed a non-legally binding resolution encouraging countries and businesses to tackle the issue of oceanic plastic pollution.14
Meanwhile, progressive national and regional governments in many parts of the world are continuing to introduce levies and outright bans on the production and use of plastic bags.15 Furthermore, the international trade of plastic waste (yes, like metals, energy, and agricultural products, there is a commodities market that trades in plastic waste) was dealt a major blow in 2017 with the imposition of an import ban from China.13
At the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) level, inspiring projects are in development across the world. Organizations like The Ocean Cleanup16 & The Seabin Project17 are on a mission to rid our oceans of plastic waste. Thank you to all involved.
Fashion Industry Solutions
Narrowing our focus down to the fashion industry, it is clear that designers are now becoming more cognoscente of plastic as a material of choice. In fact, plastic was a prominent feature at the recent London Fashion Week. Unfortunately, not every designer had the environment in mind as many of the creations contained new, original plastic. Surely that was a missed opportunity. Others, like Christopher Raeburn, created designs from recycled plastic bottles and discarded nylon parachutes18 (nylon is a polymer plastic). Awesome!
Like Cristopher Raeburn in London, many other brands are showing great initiative in this area. Everlane, a San Francisco based retailer, produces an exciting range of outerwear clothing from salvaged plastic waste.19
Similarly, in Cornwall, England, a new company by the name of Plastic Oceanic is also fighting the cause. By collecting plastic waste from local beaches and subjecting it to their own specially developed process they are able to transform what was plastic beach pollution into beautiful pieces of jewelry.20 What a fantastically innovative idea. Good luck to those guys.
Recognizing this trend as a growing social movement, some of the world’s best-known brands are also getting in on the act. Adidas, in collaboration with Parley, an organization dedicated to creating awareness about oceanic plastic pollution, has created a line of athletic footwear that is manufactured from ocean plastic waste.21
Here at Voguelle, we are also very excited about the opportunities that exist to combat this terrible problem. As we are now on the verge of expanding our product range and hugely committed to the concept of Fair Trade, we are just weeks away from introducing a new brand to our online store. That new brand is… drum roll… Conserve.
Based in Delhi, India, Conserve is a social project that provides employment opportunities to hundreds of people in disadvantaged communities while also helping to rid the environment of plastic waste. By collecting, cleaning, and drying waste plastic bags, the great people at Conserve are able to upcycle sheets of plastic into fashionable new accessories. Furthermore, in addition to providing fair trade employment opportunities and assisting in the cleanup of the local environment, the profits generated from this enterprise are reinvested back into local welfare programs.
As stated earlier, we are very excited to launch this new line of products. Please check back over the next few weeks to view the range. Thanks.
Unlike fashion trends that come and go, plastic remains indefinitely. While useful in many ways, its durability is now causing immeasurable amounts of damage in the natural environment. Although the fashion industry is a major contributor to the problem, innovative organizations are now finding solutions to this problem with recycling and upcycling techniques. Furthermore, consumer lead demand for fashion items manufactured from recycled plastic is creating a new phase of corporate responsibility. The era of upcycled plastic fashion is upon us.
 Geyer, R., Jambeck, J.R. and Law, K.L., 2017. Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science advances, 3(7), p.e1700782.
 Rochman, C.M., Browne, M.A., Underwood, A.J., Van Franeker, J.A., Thompson, R.C. and Amaral‐Zettler, L.A., 2016. The ecological impacts of marine debris: unraveling the demonstrated evidence from what is perceived. Ecology, 97(2), pp.302-312.
 Jamieson, A.J., Malkocs, T., Piertney, S.B., Fujii, T. and Zhang, Z., 2017. Bioaccumulation of persistent organic pollutants in the deepest ocean fauna. Nature ecology & evolution, 1(3), p.0051.