Yearly, more than 14 million tons of microplastics has accumulated into our oceans. Plastic never breaks down, it degrades into smaller and smaller pieces, named “microplastics.”

Studies have revealed that plastic waste at the surface represents only 1% of the estimated plastic in the ocean. Microplastics represent the largest part. To no one’s surprise, collecting these microparticles is indeed extremely difficult.

There are two types of microplastics: primary ones referring to plastic fragments and particles—microfibers from clothing, microbeads, plastic pellets—and secondary microplastics coming from bigger pieces—such as plastic bags or fishing nets.

Microplastics are transported by marine snow, a fall of organic materials from the upper waters to the ocean depths. Initially composed of biological matter—plant and animal carcass wicks, mucus, dust, microbes—marine snow has an important function in the ecosystem. This phenomenon transports carbon and drops it to the ocean floor, functioning as a catalyst for climate regulation.

Presence of microplastics in the ocean affects the whole ecosystem: by increasing the volume of organic carbon to be processed, plastics alter the biological rate of marine snow—the natural pump of the ocean—, leading to climate change.

Ocean pollution contributes to the contamination of marine food systems, naturally connected by marine snow, and thus disrupting the global food chain. Scientists have found microplastics in many sea species: plastics degrade slowly, resulting that they have a high probability of ingestion.

One of the main contributors to microplastics in the oceans is the fashion industry and synthetic textiles.

The house of a deep-sea larvacean. When the larvaceans move out, their microplastic-laden houses sink into the deep. Credit: NOAA - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Synthetic fibers represent over 2/3 of all materials used in textiles and are responsible for about 8% of European microplastics released to oceans. Globally, this figure reaches 16–35%.

What if marine plastic waste could be reused to clean and preserve the ocean?

In 2017, Stella McCartney was already asking for a new definition to luxury. The British designer was among the first to propose to turn destructive components for the planet into new raw materials. She collaborated with Parley for the Oceans, an organization contributing to research programs dedicated to upcycling marine plastic debris. Parley also works on intercepting plastic waste and developing eco-material alternatives to plastic.

Seaqual Initiative, a collaborative community, is also committed to help fighting marine plastic pollution. This organization works with ocean clean-up programs and local communities around the world, raising awareness on marine plastic pollution.

These organizations have now developed yarns made of recycled marine plastic waste that are increasingly in demand by fashion brands aiming to develop sustainable products. But studies have reported that only 9% of the world’s plastic is recycled: 15% is collected for recycling, but 40% is discarded as waste. It is not enough to save the ecosystems.

Yarns made from recycled plastics are mostly composed of post-consumer plastic and solid marine waste, at stages where collecting the debris is still possible. Plastic recycling is not a long-term solution - as the process is often mismanaged due to technological limitations, even though it reduces plastic production and its presence in natural ecosystems.

Artwork by Marine Armandin. Photo by Eleonora Paciullo. Credit: The Light Observer.

As a major contributor to ocean pollution, the fashion industry is being challenged by new regulations and customers calling for transparency and greater commitment.

Last week, Veja launched a collaboration with @seashepherd, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to protect and preserve oceans and marine wildlife. The organization is known for its direct outreach tactics to combat illegal fishing. Collaborating with such a controversial group—labeled as “eco-terrorists” in Japan, where the whaling industry is often operated illegally—is now an unquestionable strategy to raise awareness on climate emergency.

If brands generally choose softer strategies by supporting more conventional movements, they also advocate for manufacturing technologies that are not necessarily circular and sustainable.

In the fashion industry, the largest percentage of recycled synthetics are made from single-use PET bottles. Yet, the recycling method for PET bottles may become a matter of concern. These bottles can only be reused a limited number of times in a closed-loop process of bottle-to-bottle recycling. Also, recycled PET fibers are often blended with virgin synthetics to reach the target specifications and performance. Plastic recycling thus requires the production of virgin plastic to continue.

The industry’s dependency upon plastic remains significant.

“We need to focus on the quality of the garment, rather than on the ‘bio’ materials, the technology is still quite primitive.” Said Ifeanyi Okwuadi, British designer and prize winner of Hyères Festival.

Design is no less important in creating timeless and sustainable items. But undoubtedly, research and exploration of alternatives to plastic on a larger scale is much needed to avoid the use of this—so common—earth-destroying material.

Google Earth, Diamonds Beach in Island.
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Deep blue plastic