April 22nd marks Earth Day
—the largest environmental movement in the world. It encompasses 192 countries and it’s thought that more than a billion people will take part in one way or another. However, back in 1970, when a handful of people took to the streets to protest the impacts of global industrialisation, it was very much at the cutting edge of political and social activism. Fast forward to 2019, and its mission to “diversify, educate and activate the environmental movement worldwide” couldn’t be more timely. In fact, as we finally begin to accept our destructive impact on the planet, Earth Day has become a shining light among our ever-growing piles of trash.
However, what (on earth) does Earth Day have to do with nurses scrubs you might ask! Well, the clothing and textiles industry is considered among the most polluting in the world. The problem stretches to every corner of the earth—from unsustainable cotton farms, through plastic microfibres from synthetic fabrics, to poor conditions for factory workers in less developed countries. Whichever way you look at it, that innocuous set of scrubs is not quite as benign as it may seem at first glance.
But wait. We’re not here to guilt you into feeling bad every time you jump into your favourite pants! Just like Earth Day’s positive approach to ecology and sustainability, we’re here to look at the bright side, to find alternatives, solutions, and perhaps your next favourite pair of truly sustainable scrubs! So, in celebration of Earth Day 2019, and as we look forward to the 50th
anniversary in 2020, we consider the question of whether nurse’s scrubs can also embrace the global movement towards sustainability and ecology—and still withstand the rigours of hospital life.
There’s literally no escaping it. Nurses scrubs need to be washed—and washed often. However, when it comes to synthetic fabrics such as polyester, each wash cycle releases thousands of non-biodegradable microfibres into the oceans
. Evidence of these fibres has been found around the world, and they are now considered the most common microplastics in the marine environment.
Alternatives that currently exist include cotton/polyester mixes (organic wherever possible) that reduce the amount of synthetic material in each pair of scrubs. However, the fashion industry is also attempting to innovate its way out of trouble, and there’s a wealth of recycled fabrics and innovative approaches to natural fabrics
that are beginning to make their way into the medical apparel industry. All that’s required now is a final push from manufacturers to help make sustainable scrubs a reality.
When it comes to the manufacture of sustainable scrubs, there’s a huge range of factors to consider. Water usage and renewable energy sources at textile factories are high on the list, but also the type of materials used and how they are produced. For example, while cotton may be a more sustainable choice when it comes to microfibres, its production is highly inefficient when it comes to its use of water and other natural resources.
One of the issues surrounding the clothing industry is a lack of information on specific manufacturers as to factory and plantation policies and practices. However, this is beginning to change. Strategic Partners, the parent company of Cherokee scrubs
, puts sustainability high on its list of priorities, and it is continuously “establishing challenging sustainability goals in all operational areas” including with its international partners.
Recycling Old Scrubs
Finally, donating old or unused clothing is quickly gaining popularity, and while your scrubs may not be sustainable per se, they can still be part of the solution and not the problem. Non-profit organisations such as the African Hospitals Foundation
accept donations of used scrubs, although it is based in the US and we are yet to see an Australian alternative.
Recycling unusable scrubs is also an option, and Australian companies such as Textile Recyclers Australia
work with large organisations to ensure that the life of used or unwanted apparel can be extended. Hospitals can connect with companies such as these to bulk recycle scrubs, ensuring they are not left to rot in landfill. The best part? They then turn the raw materials into eco-textiles which might well become the foundation for the sustainable scrubs of the future!
It seems then, that while steps are being made to encourage the medical apparel industry to adopt more eco-friendly practices, it is still some way behind the world of fast fashion. However, it should be noted that the industry faces a number of very unique challenges that are not as easily solved as those within the leisure-wear sector. After all, sustainable scrubs are more than just a fashion choice, and they need to match the rigorous standards demanded by hospitals and clinics, while also providing comfort and durability for you.