Textiles and the Ocean

Plastics in the ocean are a huge environmental problem. I have been learning more about this as part of a textiles project I am working on at the moment. The W.I. (Women’s Institute) in the UK has long been a campaigning organisation. Each year members vote on the issues to be adopted in the current year. At the moment there are nine active campaigns.

  • Link together to alleviate loneliness
  • End plastic soup
  • Climate change
  • Get on board (the need to retain bus services, especially in rural areas)
  • Five minutes that matter (the importance of having cervical smear tests)
  • Make time for mental health
  • Make a match (to promote registration to the aligned UK stem cell registry to enable more people to receive potentially life-saving stem cell transplants)
  • No more violence against women
  • Stop modern slavery

In an innovative project with Chelsea College, volunteer WI members are working on textile projects alongside art college students for a period of five weeks. Each person will base their project on one of the nine campaign themes.

I have chosen the second, ‘End plastic soup’. It is of course closely linked with the third, ‘climate change’. In the course of my research for the project, I have learnt a lot more about the problem of plastic going into the ocean. Plastics in the ocean break up eventually into smaller and smaller pieces, but do not go away, since plastic is such a hard-wearing material. ‘Plastic soup’ is the phrase coined to describe micro-particles of plastic (5mm or less) which pollute the ocean. I had some previous awareness of the issue, but what I have discovered has shocked me and prompted me to make some changes in my own life to reduce my contribution to the problem.

Fast fashion is a contributor to environmental damage. Ritula Shah, writing in the Waitrose magazine on 5 November 2020, makes reference to an enquiry held by Members of Parliament into the environmental damage of fast fashion. She writes ‘It’s their second investigation and they claim in the UK we buy more clothes than any other European country and estimate we throw away more than a million tonnes of clothing every year. Around a third of that ends up in landfill or is incinerated. And it all contributes to climate change. It’s hard to ignore’.

Photo credit: Martin Argles for The Guardian

A particular problem with fast fashion is that clothes are often made with man-made fibres produced from oil (such as nylon, polyester and acrylic). Regenerated fibres are also used, such as viscose (rayon) which is made by mixing natural materials (wood fibres) with chemicals. Increasingly, viscose production is made by a process which reduces the environmental impact of production, but this is still not a natural fibre. (To read more about how viscose is made see here)

If clothes made from synthetic fabrics are thrown away after being worn very little and are made from fibres which do not decompose, we are creating a huge problem for ourselves. There is no ‘away’ really: synthetic clothes which are incinerated will poison the atmosphere and those that go into landfill will damage the land. While synthetic clothing is in use and is washed in a washing machine, tiny plastic particles are shed into the water. These micro-particles flow into the sewage system and eventually end up in the ocean. It is thought that at least 9.4 trillion fibres could be released per week in the UK alone (based on a 6kg load of polyester-cotton which released 137,951 fibres). Almost half a million households in the UK send most of their unwanted clothes to landfill. (Statistics source: National Federation of Women’s Institutes report ‘In a Spin’, published in 2018.)

An excellent source of information can be found in programme 4, “Oceans” in the BBC television series ‘A Perfect Planet’. Although there are five oceans in the world – the Arctic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean and Southern Ocean – they form a single ocean full of currents, which take a thousand years to complete a circuit of the globe. Plastics thrown into the sea, broken down into micro-particles are then carried all over the world. You can see the video ‘A Plastic Tide’ by Sky News about this subject on YouTube here

Micro-plastics in the sea are consumed by tiny zooplankton who do not distinguish them from food. They are then eaten by fish. In this way, plastics pass right through the food chain. Colleen Weiler of the WDC (Whale and Dolphin Conservation) reports on the damage to Orcas, which are at the top of the marine food chain. She states ‘Today’s calves… are still heavily impacted by these toxins through nursing, when their mothers offload their own toxin loads burning their fat stores to produce milk’. In decades of study of Orcas on the West Coast of Scotland, no calves have been seen at all.

an orca swimming in the sea, created using Inktense fabric pencils
An orca draw on a re-usable bag using Derwent Inktense pencils, made for the project

Plastics enter the food chain and end up being consumed by humans. An academic study carried out in 2014 by the University of Ghent looked into the accumulation of plastic in mussels (a dish much enjoyed by Belgians!). The link to the research is here. It is not yet known exactly what effect ingesting plastic particles has on the human body; research is ongoing.

I was very sobered when I learnt the extent of the problem. A helpful book by Lucy Siegle called ‘Turning the Tide on Plastic’ offers a number of practical steps to help change awareness into action. She suggests eight groups of actions all starting with R. Here are examples of each ;

  • Record use of plastic every day for 4 weeks
  • Reduce the amount of plastic used, especially ‘single-use’ plastic
  • Replace – plastic for glass bottles ; use of long-lived plastic containers
  • Refuse  to use plastic shopping bags
  • Re-use plastic tubs and containers for food storage
  • Refill rather than continue to buy new containers
  • Rethink – check garment labels when buying clothes
  • Recycle – sort rubbish carefully

Before starting this project, we already did the following: owned a bamboo cup (usable again once pandemic restrictions lift) and metal water bottles. I buy soap powder (Ecover) in bulk. It is delivered in a paper bag and then I decant it into a container for everyday use. I carry a nylon bag from Cath Kidston and a silk bag from Oxfarm (both foldable into a small purse) in my handbag. We sort and recycle our rubbish and have a compost bin, even though the garden is very small and there are solar panels on the house. We have tried to reduce our use of disposable cleaning cloths.

Prompted by the project, I am going a bit further. I am currently experimenting with both shampoo and conditioner from ‘Friendly’ sold in the form of a soap bar, packaged in a cardboard box.

I have exchanged my plastic bottle of deodorant for a deodorant stick in a cardboard tube. My favourite writing pen (Uni-ball Gel Impact) is now obtainable in a box of 14 – seven pens and seven refills, delivered by post in a cardboard box (instead of a single pen in plastic-heavy packaging. We have had our first delivery of toilet rolls and kitchen roll from ‘Who Gives a Crap’. These paper items are made from bamboo, a quick-growing environmentally-friendly material (not from trees), they are wrapped in paper, not plastic and arrived in a cardboard box.

I have always been careful about checking the label of any garment I buy, as I need to have only natural fibres next to my skin. Now, I am beginning to question my use of materials: could I manage without polyester thread and acrylic yarn for example? Should I make a permanent switch from poly-cotton and polyester wadding to 100% cotton, bamboo and wool wadding? I certainly plan to reduce my purchasing and value what I have. All the pieces made for the ‘End plastic soup project’ were made entirely from materials already in my possession. This fabric will be used for the binding of one piece.

Another strand that has emerged in the research for the project has been ‘craftivism’. According to Betsy Greer ‘A craftivist is anyone who uses their craft to help the greater good’. A recent television programme on the subject by BBC 4 and introduced by Jenny Eclair showed some great examples, including this one:

Programme Name: Craftivism – Making a Difference – Picture Shows: Jenny Eclair and Lauren O’Farrell in Crystal Palace Park with their felt graffiti Jenny Eclair, Lauren O’Farrell – (C) Alastair Veryard Photography – Photographer: Alastair Veryard Photography

So if this is something that is concerning you too, there is plenty you can do as a maker – and just as a human being. I’ve listed below some campaigning organisations that might be of interest.

National Federation of Women’s Institutes ‘The WI is the largest voluntary women’s organisation in the UK. It plays a unique role in enabling women to develop new skills and gives them opportunities to campaign on issues that matter to them and their communities.’ www.thewi.org.uk

Friends of the Earth ‘We are part of an international community dedicated to protecting the natural world and the wellbeing of everyone in it.’ www.friendsoftheearth.uk

Greenpeace ‘a movement of people who are passionate about defending the natural world from destruction’ https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/

World Wildlife FundOur planet is in trouble and we need to act now’  https://support.wwf.org.uk/

Surfers against Sewage We create ocean activists everywhere for a thriving ocean and thriving people’. https://www.sas.org.uk/

Extinction Rebellion ‘is an international movement that uses non-violent civil disobedience in an attempt to halt mass extinction and minimise the risk of social collapse.’ https://extinctionrebellion.uk

Published by Amanda Jane Textiles

I am a quilt-maker, designer, writer and teacher.

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