A look into the plastic inside your clothes

An infographic diving into three types of plastic-based fabrics and how they may be affecting our environment

September 9, 2022
A microscope image of a nylon stocking, showing a network of trapezoidal pink plastic fibers connected and reinforced by coils of green and yellow fibers.
When viewed under a microscope, the woven bits of plastic that make up fabrics like nylon are easier to see. [Credit: Alexander Klepnev | CC BY 4.0]

It turns out my wardrobe has quite a lot in common with the Polly Pocket clothes I used to chew on as a kid: They both are made of a lot of plastic. In a quest to understand more about how our use of plastic is affecting the world, I wanted to figure out just exactly how the clothes I wear contribute to that. 

I discovered that many of the stretchy, durable and soft fabrics that make up everything from my underwear to my winter jacket are made from synthetic fabrics. These fabrics, like other plastics, are made from fossil fuels. It’s estimated that 342 million barrels of oil are put towards their production every year

In order to break that massive production into bite-size pieces, I took a look at three synthetic fabric types, though there are at least seven more in common circulation. The infographic below examines their manufacture, use and disposal and demonstrates how you may be interacting with and furthering plastic use right in your own closet.

But while considering all that, keep in mind that natural textiles — like cotton, flax, wool and silk — have their issues too. The production of cotton, for example, uses massive amounts of water; it’s estimated that it takes 2,700 liters of water to produce one cotton T-shirt. Pesticides and other agents used in the farming and manufacturing process can also contribute to groundwater pollution, according to the World Wildlife Fund

Zoom in for more info about plastics below!

An infographic showing the manufacture, use, disposal, and overall impact of polyester, nylon and acrylic, the most popular synthetic fabric types. Also shows three different ways people can reduce their pollution imprint by shopping less, treating clothes more gently, and keeping clothes for longer.





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About the Author

Maiya Focht

Maiya Focht is a science journalist passionate about all things STEM: from the brain to robotics to the biosphere. Prior to SHERP, she studied Neuroscience and Television, Radio and Film while working as a health and wellness beat reporter at NPR.


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