A single item of clothing made out of synthetic fibres releases up to 700,000 microplastic fibres into the sea when it is washed, a study warned.
And these can end up back on our plates because they are swallowed by fish and other marine life and become incorporated into the food chain, say scientists.
More than a third (35%) of microplastics released into the world’s oceans are from man-made textiles.
The report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers calls for urgent action – including the development of more environmentally friendly fibres.
Manufacturers need to follow the lead of Stella McCartney and Dame Vivienne Westwood who are as known for sustainable and ethical fashion as much as style.
It says six million tiny particles from a typical 5kg wash load of polyester fabrics pollute our oceans.
Aurelie Hulse, lead author of Engineering Out Fashion Waste, said: “We need to build on existing industry initiatives and fundamentally rethink the way clothes are manufactured – right down to the fibres that are used.
“Garments should be created so they don’t fall apart at the seams and so they can be recycled after they have been worn for many years.
“Fabrics should be designed not to shed microfibres when washed and industry needs look at how efficiencies can be made in the cutting process, which currently sees 60bn square metres of cut-off material discarded on factory floors each year.”
Manufacturers and retailers are also advised to tackle waste – including the huge amounts of clothing going to landfill every year
The report highlights garment aftercare affects an item’s carbon footprint. It suggests individuals wash their clothes at a lower temperature.
They should also use mesh laundry bags to catch threads, rely on tumble dryers less often or install filters on washing machine waste pipes.
The report describes fashion as a “thirsty industry” – one which contributes significantly to water pollution globally.
It is also energy-intensive producing the equivalent of 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2015 – more than international flights and maritime shipping combined.
Ms Hulse said: “Increasingly, major fashion brands – not just the likes of Stella McCartney – are becoming more conscious of the impact of their environmental footprint, and are progressively relying on engineers to play a more prominent role in designing out waste, across a garment’s life cycle.
“This involvement of engineers can for example, manifest in areas such as the research of fabrics.”
The Institution wants the waste produced over the life cycle of an item of clothing tackled.
This includes addressing water-intensive processes during manufacturing, such as removing excess dyes, and the problem of disposing of a garment at the end of its life.
Three-fifths of all clothing produced is sent to landfill or incinerated within a year of being made.
Dr Jenifer Baxter, head of engineering at the Institution, said: “The garment industry is one of many industries that has a threefold impact with emissions to air, water, and large amounts of waste produced for landfill and incineration.
“This means that to begin to create a sustainable fashion industry we need to address all of these areas and engineers are producing solutions that range from greater efficiency in machinery and water use to new materials with reduced shedding.
“Given that it has been estimated there are 20 new garments manufactured per person each year and consumers are buying 60 per cent more than in 2000, these environmental implications must be addressed as a matter of urgency.”
Engineering Out Fashion waste recommends three priority areas for action:
* The UK Government, in collaboration with the fashion industry, should invest in initiatives which provide incentives for the development of more environmentally friendly fibres.
* It should work with the fashion industry and manufacturers to develop a comprehensive framework to tackle ‘greenwashing’ or false sustainability claims.
* Along with the fashion industry and manufacturers it should support the development of mechanical and chemical fibre recycling technologies – particularly those which are able to separate blended fibres.
Ms HHulse said: “Annual growth in global demand for clothing is projected to increase from 1.5% in 2016 to between 3.5 and 4.5% by the end of 2018, and is likely to continue to grow beyond this.
“The increase in demand makes the environmental challenges for the industry more prominent – an industry already associated with high water and chemical use, and greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention poor labour conditions.”