How much plastic is in our swimwear? (and what harm can it do?)

Plastic. Is. Everywhere. It’s in our food packaging, our laptops, our bike helmets and even our grandmother’s hip replacements. But our bikinis? What has our swimwear got to hide? Read on to dive deeper in to what really lies beneath our bathers and why our choice of material matters.

We are surfers, divers and wild-swimming warriors. An increase in adrenaline-loving, adventurous pastimes has helped the global swimwear market to rise. This wave of popularity is expected to reach a staggering 29.1 billion US$ by 2025. We are high maintenance consumers. We need our swimsuits to be tough enough to tolerate salt, chlorine and UV light. Shrink-resistant, stretchy, comfortable and quick-drying. Oh, and don’t forget form-fitting and flattering. That’s a tall order for natural fabrics. 

From Boohoo to Burberry, Asos to Armani, if you look at the label you will see one thing in common. The majority of swimsuits are made of 80-90% nylon or polyester and around 10-20% spandex, lycra or elastane. 

These fabrics deliver on our high demands. Nylon became popular in WWII when other fabrics were scarce. It is soft, strong and lightweight (think sexy stockings of the 1940s!). Polyester is abrasion resistant, keeps its shape and doesn’t fade or degrade in harsh sunlight. They both offer the ultimate in easy care for our fast-paced lives.

What most people don’t realise is that these synthetic, man-made fibres are derived from PLASTIC. Polyamide (more commonly known as nylon) and polyester are synthetic polymers and are formed by a chemical reaction( The process uses fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum mixed with air and water. It is energy hungry and toxic. It also leaves a heavy carbon footprint. 

Both fabrics are also not biodegradable. Once we get bored of our beachwear or it wears out, we are condemning it to an ever-mounting mountain of rubbish. The equivalent of 1 rubbish truck of textiles is taken to a landfill site or burned every second, so that’s around 300 lorries worth by the time you have finished reading this. 

Are we splitting hairs? 

Just as brushing our hair pulls away small strands, every time we put our bathers in the washing machine, they release microscopic fibres. These can be less than 5mm long and thinner than a human hair. Too tiny to be trapped by washing machine filters and even wastewater treatment plants they eventually end up in our oceans. Can you imagine 1900 plastic particles floating in the ocean currents? That’s how much just one item of clothing can shed.

Once these fibres get in to our seas they act like a sponge, soaking up pesticides and pollutants, contaminating everything from coral to crustaceans. Synthetic fibres count for over a third of the primary plastic in our oceans. 1 in 3 fish caught for the food market have been found to have plastic in them. 

Simplest short-term solution? Be kind to your cossie. Wash off that chlorine and salt in cold water wherever possible and dry out of direct sunlight. 

Cast your net wider

If we want to be “part of the solution, and not part of the pollution” as an anonymous quote goes, then there are ways we can redress the balance.  Below are just a few organisations trying to make a change:

Healthy Seas encourages clean-ups of the ocean with volunteer divers and works with those in the fishing sector to find sustainable solutions for their waste management.

5Gyres focuses on finding plastic pollution first-hand through research expeditions. They invite citizen scientists, corporations and celebrities to, literally, get on board.

Ellen MacArthur Foundation believes in a circular economy. They provide education and resources and work with the world’s leading organisations to show them exactly what is possible.

UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion is trying to reduce the negative environmental and social aspects of the fashion industry. They aim to coordinate support and promote projects with other UN bodies worldwide.

So, what can a budding bikini babe buy instead?

The good news. Consumers who care about their purchases are on the rise and the swimwear industry is sourcing fabric alternatives. We can speak with how we spend. Dana Thomas, author of Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of clothes, states “it is absolutely important that swimwear brands swerve towards greener fabrics than virgin nylon, and especially polyester”. 

The ideal is a circular economy where resources are constantly used. No waste, just constant regeneration.

Net income

Commercial nets discarded by the fishing industry create a huge amount of environmental damage. They drift in currents, ensnare sea life and suffocate coral. According to Nofir, a company based in Norway, they have collected over 30,000 tons of these nets to date. After cleaning them they are reformed in to a nylon thread. The result is Econyl®, which is making waves in the world of sustainable swimwear. It has all the same qualities as nylon but without the nasty fossil fuel production (just water and heat). It can match the quality and performance of its carbon-unfriendly cousin, but better still, it’s infinitely recyclable.  

Clear plastic water bottles are a real hazard for turtles as they mistake them for jellyfish. In fact, a recent study found ingested plastic in 100% of turtles examined. But if you fish those plastic bottles out of the water and shred, melt and shape them, they can be turned in to recycled polyester, commonly known as rPET (recycled polyethylene terephthalate). It’s putting a new spin on one of the most popular yarns in the clothing industry.

 Seamorgens are going even further in their aim to reduce their use of virgin plastics in their swimwear. No plastic hooks, clasps or buckles. No plastic packaging. Every garment is reversible and designed so you can get as much wear from it as possible. Waste fabric is used to make into other products and we also support projects who want to protect the ocean environment too.

Iconic fashion designer Vivienne Westwood says “Buy less. Choose well. Make it last”. If we do our research and shop smartly, we can help keep our oceans clean, one costume at a time. And we can look like a beach babe, too. Remember, like Dory in Finding Nemo, ‘just keep swimming’, but don’t forget to check the label of what you’re swimming in.

By Andrea Lee