Australians are some of the biggest consumers of fashion per capita in the world and most are unknowingly wearing plastic.

According to The Australian Institute, Australians buy an average of 56 new garments of clothing each year and more than 200,000 tonnes of clothing end up in landfill each year. According to the Changing Markets Foundation, almost 70 per cent of these garments are made of synthetic materials such as polyester, which is cheap but can take up to 200 years to decompose.

While polyester has resulted in extremely cheap and mass-produced clothing for consumers, there are major environmental implications of the fashion industry’s reliance on polyester.

Polyester starts as crude oil which is derived from petroleum, a non-renewable fossil fuel.

Petroleum gets turned into plastic pellets called PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and the process uses 7.6 kilowatt hours of energy and emits 5.9 kg of C02.

PET pellets are then combined with other oils and acids to make mouldable polyester.

The carbon emissions and additives used during the polyester manufacturing process are equally as damaging to the environment as the mass-produced material itself.

Stephanie Beaupark, UOW Associate Lecturer of Geography and Sustainability, says dyes used to colour polyester have destructive effects on local ecosystems.

“They end up in the waterways near the manufacturing facilities … this causes catastrophic effects to the health of the local ecosystems as well as health of people as it has been found to cause long-term illnesses like cancer,” Miss Beaupark said.

Whilst toxic dyes like azo dyes are banned in Australia, they are frequently used overseas. Certain azo dyes can be carcinogenic and in extreme cases of prolonged exposure, can cause human and animal tumors. In Brazil a study of the Cristais River, located near an azo dyeing plant, found the water quality had been significantly impacted by the presence of mutagenic material that had trickled down from the plant.

Although polyester is mainly produced overseas in Asian countries including China, Taiwan and Korea, Australia is a massive importer of fashion and textiles. According to the Australian Fashion Council, nearly 1.4 billion units of fashion are imported each year and only 29 per cent of businesses source their materials from local suppliers.

Manufacturers passively conceal the plastic origins of polyester, making labels hard to read for consumers or claiming it as ‘recycled’. According to some, the fashion industry excels at greenwashing (misrepresenting the extent of how sustainable or environmentally friendly a product is).

Recycled polyester is made from discarded plastic bottles and is still derived from a non-renewable fossil fuel. Polyester, recycled or not, sheds small pieces of plastic called microplastics each time it is washed. Microplastics have been found around the world in the air and water, ingested by marine life and by humans. The plastic bottles used to make polyester can only be recycled one time. After the singular recycling process, the clothing items decompose in landfills with other polyester items.

It is in the interest of the manufacturer to keep producing polyester as it mimics the feel of natural fibres at a fraction of the production costs.

Organic textiles like cotton, wool and hemp are marketed as sustainable alternatives to synthetic fibres. However, these alternative to polyester present their own environmental complications.

Natural fibers like cotton, wool and hemp, are marketed as eco-friendly alternatives. Australia is the leading global supplier of wool and a sizeable grower of cotton and hemp. However, the processes of growing natural fibres for production also place stress on the environment. Ms Beaupark says alternative materials to polyester can be just as damaging to the environment as polyester itself and prevent access to natural resources for Indigenous communities.

“Cotton requires a lot of water to grow and has caused a lot of damage, particularly in the Murray-Darling basin where many remote communities are experiencing a water access crisis. This is especially true in communities with high Indigenous populations, so this environmental damage from cotton production is a form of environmental racism since culturally and racially marginalised groups are the most affected by this issue.”

Another alternative to buying clothes that take decades to break down in landfills is purchasing clothes from second-hand and vintage stores. Often more affordably priced, it is the most sustainable way to shop as no additional waste is produced.

Vintage designer fashion has been having a moment for a while, especially from collections shown in the 90s and early 2000s. The team at Melbourne vintage consignment store IRVSBL says vintage stores have grown more popular over the last decade.

“When we opened 10 years ago this store was primarily a niche interest, whereas now vintage designer is very much in the mainstream.”

With polyester more in use than ever before, the team at IRVSBL echoes sentiments that garment quality has declined. Now more than ever, consumer habits need to be reflected on.

Thinking consciously about buying clothes, the traceability of the production chain and the role it will have in adding waste to already overfilled landfills is a necessity. Corporations will continue to mass-produce clothing and palm the responsibility of ethics to consumers.

“Nowadays pricetag isn’t synonymous with quality.”