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Just How Much Synthetic Fiber Does the USA use?

I was curious about the total volume of natural fiber textiles produced globally vs. synthetic fiber textiles. Unfortunately, this information seems harder to find that I initially expected, so I scaled down my ambition to start by just looking textiles import and export in the United States. While this doesn't tell overall consumption, it's a reasonable proxy.

A troubling trend

What I found surprised me because it turns out that in 2017, the last year that I was able to find a full years worth of data, total synthetic fiber use nearly surpassed all natural fibers combined. This is bad news for those concerned about the spread of microplastics in our local environment, and I'm very curious to see what 2018's data reveals later this year.

This graph I made shows the trend (zoom or open in new tab for detail):


(Source: Compiled from reports by the U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau, as of 8/18/19)

What about linen and what are the raw numbers?

You'd be right to assume that flax linen also makes up a notable portion of natural fiber textile use, and fortunately data for linen is also available. Here's the break down:

Fiber 2017 Imports and Exports (in 1000 lbs)
Cotton 10,326,504
Wool 562,316
Linen (ramie, jute, and hemp) 822,185
Silk 175,771
Total Natural Fiber 11,886,776
Total Synthetic 11,347,255


What else is in the data?

US population growth during this data period, from 1960-2018, generally averages about a 1.15% increase every year. But we see from the graph that beginning in the early 80's, there's a marked increase in textile production, and the trend only accelerates in the mid 90's. This correlates to the shorter life span of american apparel these days. 

Americans dispose of about 12.8 million tons of textiles annually — 80 pounds for each man, woman, and child.


Similarly, this graph from the US EPA shows the increase in textile waste from 1960 - 2015:

This is a graph on textile waste management, spanning the years 1960 to 2015. This graph is measured in tons, and shows how much waste was recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery, and landfilled.

What can I do?

Just as we have to watch what we eat and exercise to take care of our individual wellness, we have to watch what we buy and how we use it, to be mindful of our environmental wellness. 

  • Choose apparel and home textiles that you'll use for a long time
  • Check the materials of textiles you buy, avoid buying items made from synthetic fibers that don't easily biodegrade
  • Spend on quality items - synthetic apparel and home goods are cheaper to make than those made of natural fibers

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