What can I do about my workout gear shedding microplastics? Ask The Kit
“I’m growing increasingly concerned about my clothes shedding microplastics — I keep thinking about that report of scientists finding traces in placenta. I work out every day and my big indulgence is great workout outfits: I just can’t quit the stretch. I know microplastics are found in more textiles than my gym clothes, but I’m fixated on this part of my wardrobe because of all the washing. Help me minimize my footprint here, please?” — Worried about my workout gear
Microplastics is a depressing sinkhole to fall into. They are shed by everything, from plastic bottles to cosmetics and household products to, yes, your gym kit. Microplastics have been found in samples taken atop Mount Everest and yes, in placentas in that Italian study. That one got stuck in my brain, too. If in-vitro exposure isn’t a wake-up call for humanity, we are well and truly doomed.
Plastics are shed during the manufacturing of garments, also, and the industry as a whole has to atone for all its many, many environmental costs. But for our purposes here, let’s focus in on the consumer element of the problem. The Ocean Wise Plastics Lab in Vancouver estimates that 878 tonnes of plastic microfibres are released through household laundry in Canada and the U.S. every year; that is some 533 million microfibres per household, which then makes its way into plankton on up through the ocean, then the human food chain.
I’ve pulled a few quick tips that come from this report: use a front-load machine and install a lint trap, avoid fast fashion and wash your clothes less often. All easier said than done.
Let’s further focus in here on workout gear, since that is your particular worry, Worried. We don’t want to get lost in the muck of plastic fleece sweaters or the gigantic elephant in the closet mentioned by Ocean Wise above: cheap and throwaway fast fashion. Some 50 per cent of textiles worldwide are synthetics, so this is a huge problem — let’s chew on this small bite of it. I also feel particular guilt washing my workout clothes. I own a lot of them, as my motivation to get on the treadmill is stoked by feeling good about myself, which is fed in turn by nice workout gear. It’s a virtuous circle, except for the shedding microplastics part.
To dig deeper into your conundrum, I rang up Kathleen Talbot, the chief sustainability officer at Reformation, catching her at the brand’s factory in sunny Los Angeles. Talbot has a grad degree in sustainability science and worked in higher education before joining Reformation. She also has a one-year-old at home and dwells on what dangers she is crawling around.
“Sustainability is in the DNA of the brand,” she says, “from retail associates to the boardroom.” Reformation states its sustainability focus and initiatives front and centre on its website. Synthetic materials used at Reformation are recycled, but these, says Talbot, can still shed. The brand’s stated goal is to “phase out” synthetics from the brand’s tops, bottoms and dresses. But active and swim are tougher categories.
“What is so unique about the issue of microplastics shedding from synthetics,” says Talbot, “is that with a lot of the other problems of sustainability” — from water usage and dye runoff to production emissions to post-consumer waste — “there is a more established sense of the problem and the industry is deep into solutions.”
But to eliminate synthetic shedding, she says, “the best answer is a total material shift. There is a lot of innovation coming, including bio-based fabrics and finishes to eliminate shedding, but they are not commercially viable yet.”
In the meantime, the onus is on all of us. “We are trying to drive behavioural change in how we take care of our stuff until we have a better systemic solution.” Reformation sells GuppyFriend laundry bags as one way to ensure (most) fibre shedding doesn’t end up in your local wastewater treatment plant.
Talbot also says that materials matter. Not all textiles shed equally. She believes in full transparency, declaring: “As a brand, we are still contributing to this issue.” But the Reformation Active line is made of something it calls Ecostretch, a velvety performance fabric for low-impact activities. It’s made from Repreve, which uses 100 per cent traceably post-consumer recycled plastic bottles.
As you point out, Worried, performance matters when it comes to workout wear. Even in the privacy of my own basement gym, baggy pants bum me out. “These leggings look and feel like your favourite activewear leggings,” says Talbot. “Clothing is highly emotional, there is an emotional impact of the clothes we wear. Activewear is definitely in that category; it is an emotional piece in the wardrobe.”
The scale of the climate crisis and the damage we are inflicting on our environment can be overwhelming. I’m often awake at night actively worrying about the next generation of my family and what their futures are going to be like. It can be so overwhelming that we are tempted to do nothing, because it seems so futile.
But I was inspired by my conversation with Talbot and her confident assertion that each choice we make matters. Paying just a bit more attention to what we buy (and how we care for what we buy) is a good way to get us all a bit more sleep. And that leads to it being more likely I will go for a run the next day. That’s the kind of microscale personal circular economy I can get behind.
Shop the advice
Workout gear that combines performance features — fit, move, comfort, durability — without synthetics is a scientific work in progress. Synthetics inevitably leach microplastics into the water supply. In the meantime, be careful how (and how often) you wash your gear, and invest in a washing bag to contain your microplastic shedding.
Reformation GuppyFriend laundry bag, $50, thereformation.com
One of the best things you can do for the planet, and your conscience, is to buy a bag to wash your synthetics in. It is expensive, but it is the very epitome of reusable style.