Tiny Plastics Are A Big Problem
It might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of plastics polluting our environment, but one thing is becoming clear: plastic microfibers, the small fibers that come off our synthetic clothing in the wash, are a huge problem. These fibers are less than a millimeter long, too small to be seen by the naked eye, and are entering our oceans and rivers through sewage outflows. The Hudson River alone dumps 300 million fibers into the Atlantic ocean each day.
Once there, they are being consumed by marine life, entering our food chain, and making a reappearance at our dinner tables. Yuck. While scientists are only beginning to understand how this may affect human health, plastic microfibers account for a significant portion of plastic waste entering the ocean. Here’s what we know, and what we can do about them.
Where Are These Plastics Coming From?
While all fabrics shed when they are washed, plastic microfibers that come from synthetic fabrics, like nylon and polyester, do not biodegrade as natural fibers would, so they’re not going away anytime soon. This is why companies like Patagonia are receiving a lot of attention about their contributions to plastic microfiber pollution. Garments such as polyester fleece jackets, synthetic yoga pants, and other crude oil-based performance wear are lead contributors to this issue.
This poses an interesting problem for fashion brands who use recycled plastic bottles in their textiles as a way to conserve and reduce waste. Melting plastic bottles down, spinning them into polyester yarn and re-releasing them into the environment in the form of millions of fibrous bits might prove to be more problematic than doing nothing at all.
“I am no fan of plastic and petroleum-based products, but we are not getting rid of them any time soon, in our world of convenience," says Lydia Wendt, founder of an all natural fashion and fabrics brand Cloth Foundry.
"As such, perhaps it should not be used in our soft goods such as the clothing on our bodies and the linens and fabrics in our homes. I would rather see its usefulness maximized in hardware components, our durable goods, that don’t shed and leach into our bodies and environment so very easily through use. It makes more sense for these crude oil-based products to be in our cars and furniture than in constant intimate contact with our largest organ of absorption—our skin—and mother nature’s largest element of importance to us—our water.”
The Toxicity Of Microfibers
To make matters more complicated, plastic microfibers are usually treated with toxic chemicals standard in textile manufacturing during the dye process or for performance-enhancing reasons. These chemicals are not safe to be consumed by either marine life or humans.
Take perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs). These are used as a means for waterproofing fabric, and have been linked to cancer, thyroid disease, weakened immunity and other health problems. PFCs as so persistent in our environment, through bioaccumulation up the food chain they have been detected in the tissue of polar bears. And a recent study found PFC pollution in the tap water supplies used by 15 million Americans in 27 states. As if this weren’t alarming enough, research published by Orb Media found that the United States has the highest contamination rate of microfibers in drinking water, with 94% of tested samples affected. Tap water was sampled at sites including Congress buildings, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters, and Trump Tower in New York.
As for our food supply, the size of microfibers allows them to be readily consumed by fish and other wildlife, and a recent study has found fish sold for human consumption from Indonesia and California were contaminated with plastic fibers. This has led scientists like Gregg Treinish, founder and executive director of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, to stop eating anything from the water. “I don’t want to have eaten fish for 50 years and then say, ‘Oh, whoops’,” says Treinish.
What Can We Do?
So, while scientists are still trying to determine the environmental and health threats of microfibers, they are now being found everywhere: our oceans, our drinking water, and our food supply. What can we do?
Purchasing clothing made from natural fibers like cotton and hemp is great, but realistically they will not make up 100% of your wardrobe. This means rethinking how we wash our synthetic clothing. Using a washing bag like GuppyFriend, reduces the fibers they shed, and trap those that do. After wash, you can remove the released microfibers from the bag and dispose of them properly. This allows you keep an estimated 1900 fibers that can be rinsed off a single synthetic garment out of the oceans.
Coming soon is also the Cora Ball, which you can simply toss into your laundry load and it will filter up to 35% of the microfibers per load, per Cora Ball. You can also try to wash clothing less, and line dry whenever possible.
Manufacturers also need to take an active role in educating consumers about these issues. Recommended safe cleaning methods in care labels, for example, would be a step in the right direction. But the gold standard would be to keep garment quality high (better constructed clothing sheds less), use natural fabrics, and reduce the use of known chemicals that are hazardous to the environment and, certainly, our food and water.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ashley Denisov is the founder of 1x1, a sustainable clothing brand which selects, designs, and releases their favorite wardrobe staples one at a time. She is passionate about sourcing sustainable materials, and exploring cutting edge green technologies for the fashion industry. See her latest collection at 1x1.la.