A Backpacker magazine article entitled ‘It's Time to Cancel Fleece’ recently made waves among outdoor enthusiasts and industry professionals alike. The opinion piece expounded what many of us already know: It’s time to move on from the synthetic fabrics that currently dominate the outdoor industry and look for high-performance natural alternatives.
Why? Because tiny plastic particles are becoming a big environmental problem.
The Microplastic Problem
“It’s easy to congratulate ourselves when 20 recycled soda bottles went into making our insulating garments, but 20 single objects are significantly easier to scoop up out of the waste stream than microscopic plastic fragments.” - Backpacker
Loosely speaking, microplastics are super small plastic particles. Technically speaking, these particles generally measure one micron or less—approximately the size of the bacteria and viruses your backpacking water filter must sift.
Each year, roughly 380 million tons of plastic are produced, according to a 2018 study. That’s an average of 107 pounds of plastic per person per year. Microplastics make up a sizable portion of this amount. In fact, 1,000 tons of microplastics blow into U.S. national parks each year, turning a tiny particle into a big problem.
So what’s the difference between microplastics and the more well-known and widely considered macroplastics? In many ways, microplastics are actually the more concerning of the two. These tiny particles are small enough to be carried by the wind or born by water currents, making them difficult to detect, hard to trace, and virtually impossible to clean up.
Their size also makes their reach wide...nearly ubiquitous. In recent years, scientists have discovered microplastics in some of the Earth’s most distant, heretofore untouched places—from the Rocky and Swiss Mountains to the Arctic and Antarctic snow to the deepest place on Earth: the Mariana Trench. Microplastics have been found in rainwater, soil, and waterways; wildlife, humans, and air.
The Health Effects
“No one yet knows exactly what harm this causes, but there’s a reason we don’t shred up our shopping bags and mix them with our salads.”
Microplastics enter the human body in one of four ways: they float through the air until the particles are inhaled; they settle on food until the food is eaten; they enter the food chain when they are ingested by animals; or they land in water until the water is consumed.
Recent studies have found microscopic plastic fibers in a variety of fish and shellfish that people regularly consume. Meanwhile, a 2019 study found microscopic plastic fibers in numerous rainwater samples collected from the Rocky Mountains. This rainwater then washes into waterways and filters into groundwater sources.
A 2019 study estimates that Americans ingest an average of 39,000 to 52,000 microplastic particles a year and inhale an average of 35,000 to 69,000 microplastic particles a year. That’s a total of 74,000 to 121,000 microscopic plastic fibers particles entering your airways, bloodstream, and organs each year. Another 2019 study estimates that humans ingest an average 2,000 microplastic particles a week. That’s five grams, or the size of a credit card.
Though scientists have yet to fully understand the health effects of microplastics, many plastics are made with colorants, flame retardants, plasticizers, and other chemicals linked to cancers, hormone disruption, developmental delays, and a number of health concerns. Furthermore, microplastics can also soak up other toxins in the water.
The Synthetics Problem
“Fleece—even the recycled stuff—is bad for the environment because it sheds. Every time you wash yours, millions of microscopic plastic particles swish off it and out your washer’s drain hose.” - Backpacker
Clothing is a big part of the problem. Polyester, nylon, and other synthetic fibers account for roughly 60 percent of the fibers that make up our clothing worldwide. An astounding 35% of microplastics in the ocean come from synthetic textiles.
Fleece is no exception. Here are a couple of mind-boggling stats from the aforementioned Backpacker article: The average fleece jacket sheds about 1.7 grams of microplastic per wash cycle. In 2019, 7.8 million fleeces were sold. If every fleece jacket sold last year was washed just once, those fleece jackets would shed a total of 15 tons of microplastic. Fifteen. Tons.
Part of the Solution
“So what do you do with all that fleece you already own? Hang onto it. Wear it until it’s a rag...And when it’s time to buy something new, think about going for a layer that isn’t bad for the environment you’re wearing it to enjoy.” - Backpacker
So what do we do about it? We look for alternatives. Most performance fabrics are non-renewable, non-biodegradable, and full of microplastic. That's why a few years ago, we came up with a solution: an all-natural alpaca fleece that has all the same performance characteristics without any of the environmental side effects, for all of the convenience but none of the guilt.
Natural fibers—such as alpaca fiber and merino wool—are high performance alternatives to the synthetic fabrics that currently dominate the outdoor industry. Even though here at App Gear Co we prefer alpaca fiber, we urge you to look into all types of natural fibers, as not every fiber is suitable for every person. Find the natural alternative that is right for you.
In addition to using natural fibers in all our garments, here at App Gear Co, we take true steps to be sustainable, including:
- using renewable material like cardboard and paper in our packaging, rather than single-use, throw-away plastic bag
- using renewable material like cardboard and paper in our internal material handling
- reusing 100% of our cardboard fabric tubes over and over again until they break
- using electric process power and not using any process machinery that utilizes carbon-based fuel of any kind
- recycling water in our process
- always adhering to Leave No Trace principles