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Is bio-engineered fashion a future solution for ocean microplastics?

Scientists and fashion designers are working together to create clothing using food and drink, meaning plant-based alternatives to environmentally damaging fabrics could be coming very soon.

Clothing made from synthetic materials currently dominate the fashion consumer market, with over 60% of clothing produced being made from plastics rather than organic materials like cotton and wool.

You’re probably familiar with the textiles polyester, nylon, acrylic, and polyamide – which are commonly used by fast fashion brands to produce clothing on a mass scale.

Unfortunately, items made from these have a short closet-life, surviving just a few wears and washes before being thrown out.

Those few washes, however, have a huge impact on our environment, as the synthetic fabrics release thousands of microplastics inside your washing machine with each cycle.

In fact, acrylic has been identified as the worst contributor to this with an estimated 728,789 fibres released per 6kg wash.

These fibres are thinner than a strand of human hair and after being drained out of your washing machine travel into the water treatment system, out to our oceans and (rather dauntingly) into the food chain.

Researchers found that 73 percent of fish caught at mid-ocean depths in the Atlantic had microplastics in their stomachs. That being said, if you eat seafood, you’re most likely consuming microplastics – all while wearing them… yum.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Breakthroughs in fashion bioengineering have already discovered that aquatic algae and mushrooms can successfully be turned into both sequins and leather-like material, respectively. This is huge news – especially for couture designers who utilise these previously non-biodegradable elements in high numbers to generate intricate designs.

The designer rethinking the creative process of fashion from start to finish

BioCouture, run by British designer Suzanna Lee, is a consultancy experimenting with developing organic fabrics and other materials that can be used for clothing and accessories.

Inspired by a biologist who told her that she could cultivate fabrics from fermenting bacteria, yeast, and sweetened green tea, she began the fermenting process over the course of 2-3 weeks.

Suzanna discovered that during this short time, the bacteria spin cellulose fibres which eventually forms layers resembling translucent paper. While still wet, the material can be moulded around a mannequin into 3D designs, essentially sewing itself together.

It’s encouraging to see major brands utilizing these types of sustainable, organic materials. Adidas is working on a mushroom-leather Stan Smith trainer and fashion house Hermes has recently announced a future collection using plant-based ‘leather’.

Although bioengineered clothing is still in its early days, extensive work is being done to increase the durability of organic fabrics – from waterproofing to slowing the currently rapid speed of biodegradation using special dyes.

Given the prevalence of synthetic fabrics on the market, it’s likely we all have a few items in our closets that aren’t entirely environmentally friendly.

Simple ways to reduce the shedding of these microplastics include washing your clothes at a lower temperature, using a gentler spinning cycle, and reducing the amount of clothes you buy made from such materials.

To avoid microplastics altogether, look out for items of clothing made from organic cotton, linen, bamboo, hemp or wool. These fabrics take less energy to produce and have a significantly smaller impact on the environment.

As pressure mounts on the fashion industry to come up with more sustainable design solutions, it looks like we can expect this list to grow significantly in years to come.