The problem with polar fleece: it’s in the ocean, it’s in sea creatures, it’s on our plates

Every earth-crunchy, green, neo-hippie, tree-hugging, back to the lander type (like myself) seeks out natural fibers when buying clothes, understanding them as the healthy, sustainable choice. Yet at the same time, outdoor apparel companies who cater, to a large extent, to people who love being out in the healthy pristine wilderness, specialize in selling us expensive specialized clothing made out of artificial fibers in the name of performance and even safety. (Remember kids, cotton kills!)

The ascendancy of the tech fibers has made it difficult, and expensive, to find natural fiber alternatives in the field of outdoor clothing. And admittedly, these materials have their strong points: they are lightweight, durable, non-itchy, moth proof, easy to wash, etc. And while this stuff can be expensive when sold by specialty retailers, over the years cheap fleece goods have become ubiquitous at chain stores, in everything from baby clothing to home decoration.

As a result, at this point, only the most militant lentil eating do-gooder, the most pure of the pure, do not have at least one polar fleece (polyester fleece) pullover in their wardrobe or blanket on their bed. I have a few polar fleece items, and as with all artificial fibers, I knew when I bought them that these things will never decompose, will clog the landfills along with all the other detritus I’ve generated throughout my life. But really, what is a fleece beanie in comparison to the foam and polyester monstrosity which is our mattress? Or what about the long chain of discarded electronic devices trailing in my wake? Fleece pullovers seemed such a small sin in the greater balance of things.

Now I’m not so sure.

classic-1Turns out that polyester fleece (and probably all synthetic fabric, more on that later) sheds teeny tiny microfibers in the wash water, and that passes through the waste treatment plants and ends up in watershed, where they not only add to our terrible problem of plastic pollution in the ocean, they are also consumed by marine life. They enter the food chain. Confused bivalves and shrimp eat this stuff, and we eat them. In short, we are eating our fleece jackets. And nobody knows what health impacts all this ingestion of microplastics will have for us, or the sea creatures.

The news first came to me, ironically enough, via Patagonia, purveyors of very expensive polar fleece. They’d commissioned a study on this, which showed that all fleece sheds significantly in the wash. High quality fleece sheds less initially than budget fleece, but they even out as they age, and aged fleece sheds significantly more than new fleece. They also found that puffy fiberfill jackets are significant shedders as well–apparently the tiny fibers migrate out the seams. Currently Patagonia is puzzling over how to weave non-shedding fleece, or perhaps convince washing machine manufacturers to install better filtration devices on home machines.

I’m going to point you to this Outside Online article for the details–it’s well worth the read.

Patagonia certainly did not break this news–I just stumbled on it via their recently released study. As the article above describes, the first whistleblower may have been marine biologist Mark Browne. Environmental organizations focused on ocean health, like The Plastic Soup Foundation and Save the Mermaids have been working on this problem for a while now, and they produced the cheeky PSA video above for a European audience back in 2015. (It’s worth noting that you pretty much have to offer a striptease to get the average viewer to sit through a video about ocean health.)

Though the Patagonia study focused on fleece, it seems all synthetic fibers shed and add to the problem. This is mind boggling when you start to think of everything in your household which contains synthetic fibers and which may end up in the wash now and again–from fleece blankets to underwear to stretchy jeans to stuffed animals.

What to do?

I think the quick take-away here is that your instincts about the superiority of natural fibers were always right and you should stick with them and phase out synthetics as much as you can, at least until we either figure out how to make a non-shedding synthetic or figure out how to filter waste water more effectively.

I find it interesting that none of the articles I’ve been reading are presenting this as an simple solution to the problem. But there it is.

According to the video above you can lessen the shedding by using liquid detergent and fabric softener in a cold water wash, but this is not a solution, just a mitigation.

It turns out that over the years here at our house we’ve sent a good deal of these stray fibers into the soil around our house, since we’ve been using a greywater system. I’m not sure what to think about that. I doubt that the fibers are as disruptive in the soil as they are in a marine ecosystem, but still, it’s not good, and I don’t like it.

Thinking about my own household, I’m targeting certain items for disposal. I have some very old fleece in my life: a 15 year old bathrobe, a blanket and a throw of nearly same age. These are things I have no special love for, and yet must be major shedders when I wash them. Rather than give them to the thrift store (because their new owners will continue to wash them), I’m going to consign them to the landfill. This makes me unhappy, but it was always their ultimate fate, anyway. I have wool and cotton things to take their place, and in the future, can continue to use natural fibers for these purposes.

I have a few other items which are newer and don’t really need to be washed for a few years, which I’ll keep for now, like a fleece vest and hat, but one day they will go to the landfill as well. I’m going to transition more to woolen outdoor items, even though they are expensive. Despite the fact that marketers have convinced us we can’t go outside without being all geared up in high tech fabrics, our grandfathers were happy enough tromping through the woods in those snappy plaid wool coats, and early mountaineers did impressive climbing in wool knee socks and knickers.

Even more tricky are items that just don’t translate well into natural fibers. We can wear baggy underwear held up by drawstrings, but do we want to? What about tights and socks? And I don’t know if anyone wants to go back to the days of woolen bathing suits! Erik suggests we all start bareass swimming, which is the aquatic analog of barefoot running.

Indeed, maybe we should be like the Greeks and exercise naked and barefoot, removing whole categories of unnecessary clothing and equipment across the board. Although I have to admit that a vision of naked yoga gives me serious pause. However, no ancient yogi every wore cute stretchy pants and a strappy top to do his practice. Yoga wear, like most athletic wear, is about fashion, not necessity, and we could do most of our exercising, whatever the type, in cotton, hemp, linen or wool.

Realistically, no matter how strict we try to be, I believe will always have some synthetics in the mix, in the form of elastic if nothing else, but if we are conscious and careful, the amount that ends up in the seas, in our food, in our bodies, it will be a far cry from the amount of pollution we are causing right now, out of pure ignorance.

***

As a side note, this plastic business brings up two ongoing projects of mine which regular readers will know about, and may be wondering what’s happening with them.

The first is homemade mattresses. There are developments on that front, and for the moment all I will say is a teasing more soon!

The second is my quest to develop a sort of uniform and make my own clothes. This project is going slowly, but I have to say that all this inspires me to work harder. I want to have very few clothes, but those I have should be well made, and made out of well sourced natural materials. I do not have to sew them myself, but I do want to sew the more simple things, and source out complex items–like wool coats. I think this is possible, and even affordable if a wardrobe is considered to be a very small collection of treasured investments.

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24 Comments

  1. This post was quite interesting to me since I am a seamstress and quite aware of fabrics. I wondered where the striptease was going. At least, they used a hairy guy instead of a waxed one. That part was entertaining.

    You would not give up really warm fleece clothing if it were as cold there as it is here. That said, I have had the same two nylon coats for at least 20 years. Thankfully, for the sake of the oceans, my sweaters are mostly silk/cotton blend. My favorite blanket is wool, but it is so cold in my house, I do need the fleece ones even though they make me sweat sometimes. The wool one is a Navy blanket I bought at a yard sale, and they sell them on eBay!

    There are survivalists who use wool blankets to make coats, so there is that. Wool is water resistant and retains 80% of it warmth retention properties even when wet.

    Thanks for this, something I never knew was an issue. I do know that plastic bags eventually become microscopic particles consumed by fish–scary.

  2. I live in coastal Scandinavia, with cold damp winters and mild damp summers, and lots of wind. I have a canvas shell jacket I use year round, which I wax a couple of times a year. It’s fine for daily wear and sheds light rain and also keeps out much of the wind (more so when freshly waxed). During the winter I wear a woolly Icelandic sweater underneath. I also wear wool long underwear. My kids have wool/silk long underwear. I do have synthetic rain shell which I use when biking in the rain, but I wash it very infrequently.
    When I was staying in Russia we had good experiences with leather jackets over wool, or sheepskin coats with the wool side in. Or fur. I suppose if you want to see non synthetic outerwear for hard climates you need to look at what people wore before synthetics were available.

    • Waxed canvas and a sweater–there you go–it can be as simple as that. I love that–and am glad to know that it does hold up to “field testing” in a place with genuine winters. Living in Los Angeles, I feel vastly unqualified to comment on cold weather gear!

      Fur is very intriguing. Of course its an ethical minefield and very unpopular now. Use of animal products for clothing, whether it be something as common as wool or as rare as fur, may ultimately serve the well being of the planet as a whole than synthetic options, which are often positioned as the caring alternative. Last Christmas our neighborhood was full of anti-wool propaganda animal rights activists, and I wondered if would not be better to focus on improving sheep raising and shearing protocols than banning wool altogether, considering how problematic synthetics are for the entire biosphere. Even tech solutions to the problem of water pollution would come with steep costs–changing out weaving machinery on the industrial scale, getting people at home to upgrade their washers, sending the old ones where? Or upgrading the filtration in water plants worldwide?

      Hmm…I seem to be writing another post here!

  3. Plastic is like Elvis-its everywhere! And unlike Elvis, it’s microsized. Ick.

    My dogs now sleep on straw mattresses thanks to your posts. And it’s really handy when there are continence issues in older dogs-the peed on straw gets used as mulch, the cover is washed, re-stuff and everything is good again. I’m seriously considering straw when/if my futon gives up the ghost.

    And your uniform idea has apparently been percolating around in my head because I’m heading there myself. Two websites on sewing/knitting that I really like are http://thecraftsessions.com/ and https://fringeassociation.com/ . They both have basics/learning to sew posts that have given me new ideas and Craft Sessions has a good series on Stash Less. So now I’m replacing items as they wear out with what I really want to wear that fits like I want. (A side effect of KonMarie-ing my wardrobe is that some things just immediately stopped being worn because I realized I DID NOT LIKE!)

    • Thanks for the links! And your dog straw bed sounds fantastic, a great solution to the common problem of incontinence in older pets, turning that problem into a bonus for the garden. That is the best sort of permaculture. If you do try a straw mattress yourself, definitely let us know how it works out!

  4. …and don’t forget that – despite their hype – tech fabrics breathe less and don’t maintain an even body temp as well, so, in my experience, tend to make one sweat more, make one stink more, and hold stink in them more, so require more frequent/intense washing than wool/silk. natural soaps are also less effective on them, so they tend to actually need more artificial detergents to get them clean.

    especially at night, if your body temp isn’t well maintained, you’ll wake up more. i always hated those polar fleece footie pajamas as a kid for that reason (ie you’re warm, then you’re too warm, then you sweat, then the sweat makes you cold, so you wake up, and so it goes. and people wonder why wee ones get crappy sleep!

    and yes, there is then a crossover with the bedclothing/mattress thing. the second i changed from cotton/poly blend sheets and synthetic fiber blankets to all linen/wool/cotton (and even one made from nettle fiber!), i slept much, much better. and going old fashioned on the sheets by using only large flat ones means no elastic in a fitted sheet to break down, and you can rotate the top and bottom sheets so they wear longer. as in your post about towels yesterday, there are vintage sheets of natural fiber still going strong, while modern sheets seem to disintegrate.

    and lastly, for anyone not fond of wool and/or allergic, try layering with an alternate fiber like alpaca. it’s lightweight, super, super soft, and so warm as to be too hot a good deal of the time here in la! (yak or camel are also good choices, but those are both more expensive, and there is, sadly, a huge, huge market in fake yak products from nepal/tibet due to it’s popularity and rarity. many things advertised as made with “yak wool” may have little to no yak fiber in them, sometimes even none, and are – you guessed it – made with poly fibers instead. it also pays to know how to do a fiber burn test to check for these things!)

    • You know, I am only just coming to the conclusion that I should stop using fitted sheets, and have been googling “hospital corners.” Because, yes, it makes no sense to buy a sheet set, wear out the bottom sheet and be left with an odd, almost pristine top sheet. No more. My sheets are wearing out (because as you said, they are of poor quality) and when they give up the ghost, I’m going to change out the system. That will also take elastic out of play. Win!

      Then of course, there is the euro style system with the duvet, and they don’t use top sheets at all, which makes things even simpler. Of course, it’s hotter here than in Scandinavia, so a top sheet is all we need over us for much of the year…perhaps all of the year if things keep going as they are…

    • yeah, I did try going euro with the “no top sheet” thing. it really is lovely in its simplicity, but as you also discovered, doesn’t work well during the “i want coverage, but not quite a blanket” season/s in SoCal. ๐Ÿ˜‰ i’m truly enamored with the huge flat linen sheets made by tricia rose at roughlinen.com . the weight of them means they are enough coverage to keep the annoying fan or central air from bothering me, but still breathable. pricey, but the goal being heirloom, they are worth it, (and she does have the odd sale if you get on her mailing list).

      locally, Kaari Meng at French General goes yearly to France and scours the flea markets for vintage linens. That’s where I picked up the awesome vintage nettle sheet and and a vintage thick linen shift (the latter with obvious darning, so already well loved, but still going strong overall).

      one of my crafting to-dos for the year is to work on similar boro/sashiko-style mending techniques on some things in my mending pile to really put my paws where my preaching is on the “mend” part of the eco-equation, but it certainly helps knowing that the fabric being worked is generally durable/worthy enough so that the mending will hold! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • I feel like I’ve been using “sheet as blanket” for about the last 6 months! Why am I even talking about wool &etc? ๐Ÿ˜‰

      And on mending–I also have good intentions, and a to-do pile. We will see!

    • I’m in the UK and we have used duvets with a bottom sheet for years (though my granny always insisted on still using a top sheet under her ‘continental quit’, which defeats it’s body hugging principle). On hot nights I have some cotton top sheets we use instead because unlike my husband I have to have a cover of some sort.

      Duvets do have their own issues though. Most have a synthetic filling and those filled with feathers are very expensive. Recycling can be a problem; many textile recyclers won’t take them and even dog charities don’t want them for reuse, mostly because they can be a pain to wash. A double duvet won’t fit in a front loading machine (and nor will some singles).

      Hospital corners are no problem- I was a nurse for more than 10 years- but it will mean I’m the only person making the beds… Something to think about though.

  5. Yikes! Thanks so much for bringing awareness to this issue. I will be keeping this in mind when I shop!

  6. Thanks for bringing this up! I first heard about micro bits of nylon being an issue in the oceans from Science Friday on NPR. It was pretty much the last straw for me, and I’ve stopped buying synthetic fabric stuff, although there are a few things I haven’t figured out how to replace yet.

    There is such a thing as natural rubber elastic, but I’ve found it hard to track down, even though I sew a lot of my own wardrobe. I hope that as more people become aware of these issues, and start asking for alternatives, companies will make them available. Until then may I suggest wool/alpacaโ€”the original miracle fiber!

  7. This is really disturbing. I would love to see us move away from synthetics for so many reasons. One question that has been bothering me. though, is what to do when getting rid of all these old textiles. The idea of them (or anything) ending up in landfills is also pretty upsetting. I’ve been wondering if we can’t somehow turn them into an effective form of household insulation.

    • I understand the horror of the landfill. Funnily enough, after declaring my intent to send my old fleece to the landfill, today I decided to try using it in a simple “hay box” cooker that I’ve set up in my laundry basket. I want to experiment and see if an improvised thing made of blankets and pillows, like this, is significantly less efficient than a more formally built box. Long story short, if this works, I may have found something to do with mine!

  8. The wool Navy blanket that I use is my top sheet. As it gets colder, I add more blankets. I like the snuggly feel and the weight. So, there is no top sheet on my bed until summer when I use one. I must be covered even in the height of the heat here.

    A top sheet can still be fitted by making a pocket at the corners to slip on the mattress. A top sheet has plenty of fabric for a pocket. When the bottom sheet wears out, The top sheet can be used for a bottom sheet.

    I wear the nice nylon coats/jackets over a my silk cotton sweaters. It is imperative I dress in layers because I easily become overwarm, even in unusual and rare frigid weather.

    Protestors of fur often wear leather shoes and belts. The great majority of fur donators were raised for their pelt or hide. It is not like the environment is being ravaged for belts made of wild cow hide. I do agree that rare pelts from rare animals is not at all good for us or the animals. Also, the meat from any animal killed should be used for human or animal consumption.

    If wool itches, try Merino wool. I guided my friend to wool pants lined with silk. He had never heard of this, but it works and is very cool, actually a summer weight wool. I do buy my merino wool things on sale, deep sales. https://search.yahoo.com/search;_ylt=A0LEVxKyPbZXd6YACZhXNyoA;_ylc=X1MDMjc2NjY3OQRfcgMyBGZyA2JlZmhwLXMEZ3ByaWQDBG5fcnNsdAMwBG5fc3VnZwMwBG9yaWdpbgNzZWFyY2gueWFob28uY29tBHBvcwMwBHBxc3RyAwRwcXN0cmwDMARxc3RybAMxNgRxdWVyeQN3b29sJTIwdW5kZXJ3ZWFyBHRfc3RtcAMxNDcxNTYxMTYx?p=wool+underwear&fr2=sb-top&fr=befhp-s&type=iehp-3.19-1605&fp=1

    This is a page full of wool underwear sites. Sorry it is so long. Just google “men wool underwear” if this does not work. You can wear wool underwear for several days since wool is antibacterial.

  9. Re: fitted sheets. When I was a child, my mother’s linen closet had quite a few fitted sheets that did not have any elastic. I think the idea behind elastic in the fitted sheets is that they are easier to put on (though even as a wee tyke I had no problem in that department), they are faster to manufacture, and they fit a wider range of mattress thicknesses. I really must learn to sew:)

  10. There is a book that has recently come out called “How To Be A Tudor” by Ruth good man that details how she has made mattresses in the style of Tudor England, it might give some good tips for your project

    • Oooh! Thanks for that! Turns out she also wrote “How To Be A Victorian” and my local library has both! Got’em both on hold.

  11. Underpants and pajama pants used to be made with a regular waistband and a button closing. I remember as a teen making a pattern for baby doll pajamas that had a button closing on the panties rather than an elastic waist. They were very comfortable. Of course, prior to WWII, people knew how to alter patterns (or make their own) so that the waists would fit perfectly. I wish I could do that, but the concept eludes me.

    Kate Davies (of Kate Davies Design) lives in Scotland and is an avid hill walker as well as an advocate for wool. She has experimented with her own hiking gear and has concluded that layers of wool from the skin out keep her warmer than anything else. She had a blog post on it several years ago. That wool underwear is really itchy on my sensitive skin, as well as expensive, so after trying wool undershirts and camisoles, I have given them up. I love my wool socks and sweaters, though!

  12. The YouTube channel My Green Closet has a lot of info on textiles and environmentally-friendly solutions. Her background is in fashion design so its interesting hearing everything from an “insiders” view. She has a great couple videos detailing each type of textile and their pros/cons: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9QmTnHNb8ro

    Also Ibex is a great company that specializes in merino wool. I have a couple of shirts from them that I use for biking to work (in 90F heat) and they almost never smell. Sometimes I wash them just out of habit and feel like I *should*.

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