Every day we touch or see natural and synthetic fibers without even realizing it. But do we really know the difference and what types of fibers exist? And what are its environmental impacts?

In this article you will have the opportunity to find out what the differences are and what impacts some may have on the home we share, planet Earth.

What is the difference between natural and synthetic fibers?

Fibers can be natural or synthetic depending on how they are made or processed. Let's understand the differences.

Natural fibers

Natural fibers can be characterized as fibers that are made from natural materials that come from plants, animals or minerals. These materials are transformed into threads that give rise to our fabrics.

In this way, natural fibers can be of either animal or vegetable origin.

Examples of natural fibers

  • Fibers of animal origin: silk and wool;
  • Fibers of plant origin: cotton, linen and jute.

Synthetic fibers

Unlike natural fibers, synthetic fibers are made from chemicals derived from petrochemicals (oil or coal).

These chemical fibers can be divided into artificial, produced from cellulose, and synthetic, which derive from petrochemicals. Initially, they were developed with the aim of improving the properties of natural fibers and, with the increase in population and demand, they became a necessity.

Examples of synthetic fibers

  • Polyester: made from polyethylene terephthalate;
  • Rayon: derived from cellulose;
  • Acrylic: is made from a petrochemical product;
  • Nylon: made from polyamide (thermoplastic polymer).

As you can see, there are significant differences between natural and synthetic fibers not only in terms of their composition and extraction but also in terms of the possible consequences they can have on the environment.

What are the environmental impacts of synthetic fibers?

Synthetics represent 62% of all fibers that are produced globally. Furthermore, only 0.07% of synthetic fiber production is sustainable.

As synthetic fibers are cheap and versatile, they enable the production of affordable and fast fashion textiles (European Environment Agency).

The global synthetic fiber market will increase further by 2028, due to increased demand for clothing and accessories.

Graph showing the growth forecast for the synthetic fiber market

Aquatic pollution

Through washing clothes, the synthetic fibers we mentioned above end up in the oceans. It's possible that a single load of laundry can release hundreds of thousands of fibers.

As plastics are insoluble in water and degrade slowly, it is estimated that around 10 million tons of plastic waste are released globally per year into aquatic environments, which generates an accumulation of microplastic pollution.

Graph showing fibers released during washing

Carbon emissions

As synthetic fibers derive from petroleum, for example, this makes air and land pollution a reality. Globally, the production of these fibers consumes around 1% of crude oil production (48 million tons per year).

Using the following graph, it is possible to verify the environmental impacts throughout the life cycle of synthetic textiles.

Graph showing environmental impacts throughout the life cycle of synthetic textiles

It is important to note that natural and synthetic fibers each have their own impact. In this case , a comparison was made of the environmental and climate impacts between the most common synthetic fibers and cotton, which is a natural fiber.

It is important to promote sustainable fiber choices, control microplastic emissions and encourage reuse and recycling are important actions for the circularity of synthetic textiles.

In other words, synthetic fibers, like plastic, also pollute the environment. Therefore, it is important to have constant reuse and, at the end of their life, they must be correctly recycled.

Author: Daniela Matos