You’re an active person. Exercise makes you feel good, it's good for you, and it's fun.
Almost all of us wear dedicated fitness gear when being active. It’s supposed to improve your performance, make you look great, and keep you comfortable.
Unfortunately, almost all of our sports gear we wear is made of 100% plastic based fabrics. This includes Polyester, Nylon, Polypropylene, Elasthan, and more.
We use plastic based fabrics because they wick away sweat quickly as we begin to perspire, and can be easily shaped into whatever form we need.
However, when we look a little closer, we begin to see a lot of flaws in synthetic plastic fabrics.
Here are three of those flaws:
1. The Microplastic Problem
Harming the environment isn’t the first thing we think of when being active or playing sports, right?
There's a high probability that the exercise you partake in happens outside; running in the woods, hiking, biking, surfing, swimming, playing football, basketball, you name it. Let’s talk about the paradox here:
We love the nature that we are active in, but we are constantly harming it, and not only by driving our gas-guzzling SUVs back and forth to our favorite running spots.
I am talking about the above mentioned fitness wear our closets are overflowing with.
You may have heard the current discussions in the media regarding the plastic that's flooding our oceans.
You may have seen the images of plastic floating in the waves, miles of huge carpets of plastic garbage that cover the oceans.
But that’s only one side of the story.
There is something which scientists call “microplastics”. These are defined as plastic particles below the size of 5 mm (Frias & Nash, 2018).
Most of it is so small that it could never be seen with the human eye, and since it’s so small it cannot be filtered out by our waste water infrastructure, eventually ending up in our water ecosystems.
Plankton and fish are ingesting it, we eat those fish, we drink the water from these polluted ecosystems, and so on.
Microplastics in oceans and rivers come from many different sources. They come from abrasion of tires as they drive on the road, cosmetic products, and everyday plastic waste that is corroding, often over decades if not centuries.
One of the major origins and largest contributors to microplastic pollution is our garments that are made of synthetic plastic based fibers.
It goes something like this:
- A typical piece of athletic wear is made of Polyester, Nylon, or a combination of other plastic based fibers.
- When you put it into your washing machine the fibers will lose many tiny filaments (due to abrasion, heat, etc.)
- Those filaments are so small that filters in our washing machines and dryers do not catch them, nor do our sewage filtration systems.
- Finally, it enters our eco-systems.
A recent scientific study from a team of researchers found that 6 million of these particles are set free in a 5 kg washing load of Polyester garments (De Falco et al., Environmental Pollution by Elevier, 05/2018).
As we said, the majority of these fibers are not being filtered out.
I never considered this when hitting the road in my favorite running shirt made of Polyester... did you?
2. Unknown Recycled Materials
One of the major trends in the sports textile industry right now is to make sports garments out of recycled plastic collected from the ocean.
Let’s quickly try to understand what these companies are doing.
They take plastic garbage, sort it, and shred it. They use chemicals and mechanics to make fresh plastic pellets for textiles.
What type of plastic is it that they are fishing from the oceans?
There are a lot chemicals in it, such as BPA (bisphenol A), which is already forbidden to be used in plastics in many countries.
BPA is a banned chemical as it can easily permeate into other things near it, such as water. For example, a water bottle containing BPA could contaminate the water within, which is why many plastic bottles are for single use only.
These companies are shredding this stuff to make a fresh garment out of it.
Please don’t get me wrong, recycling is a very important thing to do, and is a great progressive achievement of our time. After all, we consume a massive amount of raw resources, so re-using a good chunk of it is great.
There are tons of brilliant uses for recycling and cradle-to-cradle design and production.
But this just doesn’t feel right.
Something is keeping me from believing that it is a good idea to put these plastic fabrics back on my sweaty body during a workout.
Plastics should definitely be recycled and used to make some things, but nothing that I wear on my body everyday.
3. The Stinky Issue
It happens to the best of us, we work our asses off running, biking, or playing a sport only to stink like a stable boy in medieval times.
We keep our contact with other people minimal until we get home to clean ourselves off and of course, wash our clothes (think back to problem 1).
Haven’t you noticed that after a while your workout clothes refuse to smell fresh again? They just hold that STINK! This smell is caused by the bacteria our body is producing when sweating.
Now the interesting part is that sweat doesn’t actually smell, but the longer you wear you clothes on your sweaty body the more bacteria is stuck on your shirt and the more it begins to smell.
Basically your synthetic plastic shirts (polyester or nylon) compound your stink after every use. Gross.
A common practice and one of the only things the sports gear industry is doing to fight this is by putting silver particles into the fabric, which also wears off and washes into our ecosystems much like the microplastics discussed in point 1.
So what’s the bottomline?
Functional textiles made of plastic definitely have their benefits. But are they really worth it?
There are fantastic alternatives out there. For example, fabrics made of highly functional wool, wood-based viscose (e.g. Tencel), silk, and many others.
For lower intensity sports, a cotton shirt will work - believe me, it will not affect your performance. If you can prove the opposite, please give me a call.
About the author:
Steffen Otten is the founder of Runamics. Runamics makes fitness gear for runners with significantly less plastic in it than the typical gear. To do this, Runamics is working with natural yarns like merino wool, silk, or synthetic yarns made of biodegradable origins like wood based Lyocell from Tencel.