Five ways sequins add to plastic pollution
Christmas and New Year are party time – an occasion to buy a sparkling new outfit. But clothes with sequins are an environmental hazard, experts say, for more than one reason.
1 Sequins fall off
“I don’t know if you’ve ever worn anything with sequins, but I have, and those things are constantly falling off, especially if the clothes are from a fast-fashion or discount retailer,” says Jane Patton, campaigns manager for plastics and petrochemicals with the Centre for International Environmental Law.
“They come off when you hug someone, or get in and out of the car, or even just as you walk or dance. They also come off in the wash.”
The problem is the same as with glitter. Both are generally made of plastic with a metallic reflective coating. Once they go down the drain they will remain in the environment for centuries, possibly fragmenting into smaller pieces over time.
“Because sequins are synthetic and made out of a material that almost certainly contains toxic chemicals, wherever they end up – air, water, soil – is potentially dangerous,” says Jane Patton.
“Microplastics are a pervasive, monumental problem. Because they’re so small and move so easily, they’re impossible to just clean up or contain.”
Researchers revealed this year that microplastics had even been found in fresh Antarctic snow.
Biodegradable sequins have been invented but are not yet mass-produced.
2 Party clothes – the ultimate throwaway fashion
The charity Oxfam surveyed 2,000 British women aged 18 to 55 in 2019, 40% of whom said they would buy a sequined piece of clothing for the festive season.
Only a quarter were sure they would wear it again, and on average respondents said they would wear the clothing five times before casting it aside.
Five per cent said they would put their clothes in the bin once they had finished with them, leading Oxfam to calculate that 1.7 million pieces of 2019’s festive partywear would end up in landfill.
Once in landfill, plastic sequins will remain there indefinitely – but studies have found that the liquid waste that leaches out of landfill sites also contains microplastics.
One group of researchers said their study provided evidence that “landfill isn’t the final sink of plastics, but a potential source of microplastics”.
3 Unsold clothes may be dumped
Viola Wohlgemuth, circular economy and toxics manager for Greenpeace Germany, says 40% of items produced by the clothing industry are never sold. These may then be shipped to other countries and dumped, she says.
Clothes decorated with sequins are, inevitably, among these shipments. Viola Wohlgemuth says she has seen them at second-hand markets and landfill sites in Kenya and Tanzania.
“There’s no regulation for textile waste exports. Such exports are disguised as second-hand textiles and dumped in poor countries, where they end up in landfill sites or waterways, and they pollute,” she says.
“It is not banned as a problem substance like other types of waste, such as electronic or plastic waste, under the Basel Convention.”
4 There is waste when sequins are made
Sequins are punched out of plastic sheets, and what remains has to be disposed of.
“A few years ago, some companies tried to burn the waste in their incinerators,” says Jignesh Jagani, a textile factory owner in the Indian state of Gujarat.
“And that produced toxic smoke, and the state’s pollution control board came to know of it and made the companies stop doing that. Handling such waste is indeed a challenge.”
One of the developers of compostable cellulose sequins, Elissa Brunato, has said she began by making sheets of material that the sequins were then cut out of. To avoid this problem, she moved to making sequins in individual moulds.
5 Sequins are attached to synthetic fibres
The problem is not only the sequins, but the synthetic materials they are usually sewn on to.
According to the UN Environment Programme, about 60% of material made into clothing is plastic, such as polyester or acrylic, and every time the clothes are washed they shed tiny plastic microfibres.
These fibres find their way into waterways, and from there into the food chain.
According to one estimate from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, synthetic textiles are responsible for 35% of microfibres released into the oceans.
George Harding of the Changing Markets Foundation, which aims to tackle sustainability problems using the power of the market, says the fashion industry’s use of plastic sequins and fibres (derived from oil or gas) also demonstrates a “deeply rooted reliance on the fossil fuel industry for raw materials”.
He adds that clothing production is predicted to almost double by 2030, compared with 2015 levels, so “the problem is likely to only get worse without significant interventions”.