Make green clothing choices to protect Lake Winnipeg from microplastics

Microplastics don't just end up harming ocean ecosystems — they also end up in bodies of fresh water like Lake Winnipeg. But the clothing choices you make can help prevent that, says Joanne Seiff.

From shopping to doing laundry, we can make choices that help protect the environment, says Joanne Seiff

Microfibres from synthetic clothes contribute to the accumulation of microplastics in the environment, research suggests. Joanne Seiff says we can help prevent that by making better clothing choices for the environment. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

Want to keep our aquatic ecosystems healthy? Let's stop putting microplastics into Lake Winnipeg.

Recent studies indicate that microplastics don't just end up harming ocean ecosystems — they also end up in fresh water. And there are a lot of microplastics in Lake Winnipeg.

A recently published study suggests most of the microplastics sampled in Lake Winnipeg came from microfibres, like those found in polar fleece clothing.

What can we do about this?

Stop the greenwashing

We buy polar fleeces, and synthetic clothing in general, because advertising convinced us that it is superior for active living. Those ads show people jogging along beaches or in the mountains. They always feature a healthy, fit person wearing an outfit that likely used a lot of petroleum-derived plastics to make.

These synthetic clothes also take a lot of energy to make. In some cases, these industrial processes also pollute the environment. Not every sports bra or polar fleece is made equally. Some are likely to do more harm to your world than the good they might offer while you are jogging.

Many in Canada's clothing industry worry that fleece, like this raw material at MEC's Vancouver test facility, could be a major source of microplastics. (Tristan Le Rudulier/CBC)
At first, when research came out that indicated that these microplastics were polluting the environment, even eco-friendly companies took little notice.

Now, companies like Patagonia are contributing to the research and trying to figure out just how much their polar fleeces shed. (Hint: A lot.) There are questions about how they can adjust their garments' construction or change fabrics and thread to alter the equation.

However, these are all symptoms of a bigger problem that we can solve in other ways.

Here are some points that start with small changes, but end with a big impact.

Wash synthetics less often

One way to theoretically protect our watershed is to wash clothing, and in particular synthetics, less often. That would mean the microplastics may shed less, and less of the material — and detergent — will end up in Lake Winnipeg.

This is true for all our clothes. North Americans love to wash clothes, and often use the washer and dryer when simply airing something out or spot cleaning might do.

As synthetics like polar fleece age and wear out, they shed more, and more microplastics end up in our environment. That happens more efficiently when they are washed and those tiny fibers end up in the water supply.

Yet even if we don't wash them often, our clothes still shed. It's a natural process that happens as we rub our elbows against our sides when we walk, or wipe ketchup off our sleeve. This is entropy — so what can we do about that?

Read labels before you buy

This part is easier than you think. Overall, you can choose to educate yourself about how your clothes are made and with what fibres.

Decide what you want to put into the watershed or your local ecosystem before you leave that big box store. Don't buy things that you can't live with — just as you wouldn't want to financially support child labor, you also wouldn't want to wear something that will last forever in the guts of a fish.

People differ here on what this choice means to them. We're lucky — we have nearly infinite choices when it comes to shopping for clothes.

You can choose something from a company that actively tries to slow down or stop pollution. You can choose something made ethically, in terms of labor choices or energy usage.

The biggest step would be to read labels and then choose not to buy anything at all. When we stop buying things on a large scale, our economic choices send a message to manufacturers.

Many of us have full closets and can choose to buy less, or mend what we have.

Choose renewable, biodegradable fibres

If you want to stop contributing to polluting the environment in terms of your clothing choices, stop buying those fleeces, synthetics, or things that produce microplastics.

Synthetics, or polyethylene plastics, are mostly made from petroleum. They don't biodegrade. Long after you stop wearing that favourite fleece, its byproducts still remain in our water and food, and in the environment.

The wool shorn from sheep is an example of a natural, renewable fibre. Focusing on clothes made from natural fibres is a healthy environmental choice, says Joanne Seiff. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

What does it mean to buy natural fibres? First, focus on things that grow and are harvested, like cotton, hemp, linen, wool, cashmere, silk — there's a long list.

A renewable fibre means that it grows back. For instance, once or twice a year, sheep get a haircut. When sheep get shorn, that wool could become your next zip-up cardigan. Next year, the shearer will also come to shear sheep — and the cycle repeats.

If the land and animals who produce fibres are part of sustainable, and perhaps even organic, farming practice, it is a healthy cycle for us and the environment.

Natural fibres biodegrade. That means they break down after normal amounts of wear and time in a compost pile. Most natural fibres will not be around indefinitely, but with care, they'll last a good long time in your wardrobe.

Nothing is perfect. Conventionally-grown cotton also pollutes through the intensive use of fertilizers and pesticides. Fibre-producing animals make manure, and that too can enter waterways.

As always, we could choose to do more and purchase less new clothing, choosing more carefully. However, choosing natural fibres makes a big difference to our environment and health. These fibres served our physically active ancestors well for thousands of years.

They wear well, breathe better than synthetics and allow us to do the hard work — keeping the land and water around for the next generation.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Joanne Seiff is the author of several books, including Knit Green, about textile sustainability. She works in Winnipeg as a freelance writer.