An estimated 1,900 microfibers can get rinsed out of a single piece of synthetic clothing each time it's washed, and these microplastic fibers might be the biggest contributors to ocean pollution.
The issue of plastics polluting our oceans isn't a new one, as the presence of vast quantities of plastic waste in the water and shorelines has been researched and documented. The origin of much of the larger bits of plastic debris in the ocean is fairly obvious, at least for those items that are identifiable with the naked eye, but one of the more pervasive ocean pollutants is so small as to be virtually invisible to us. The source of some of these tiny bits of plastic, the so-called microplastics, is microbeads in personal care products, which are washed down the drain and are too small to be effectively filtered out at wastewater treatment plants, and which probably ought to be banned.
However, one of the sources of this microplastic pollution might be as close as our own laundry room, especially if we own clothing made from synthetic fibers. After studying microplastics from shorelines at 18 sites across the globe, ecologist Mark Browne found that 85% of the synthetic materials accumulating there were microfibers that matched the kinds of materials found in synthetic clothing, which might mean that our wardrobes and washing machines are two of the biggest culprits in ocean pollution.
Browne's study, which was published in 2011 (Accumulation of Microplastic on Shorelines Woldwide: Sources and Sinks) has big implications for both ocean conservation and the apparel industry. One of the most telling findings is the estimate (based on experiments which sampled wastewater from domestic washing machines) that a single piece of synthetic clothing can release about 1,900 microfibers each time it's washed. Multiply that figure by the number of pieces of clothing made from synthetic fabrics that get washed every single day, and it adds up to a huge amount of plastic microfibers entering our waterways each year.
That's an alarming amount of plastic pollution, and if, as Browne suggests, "a large proportion of microplastic fibers found in the marine environment may be derived from sewage as a consequence of washing of clothes," then part of the solution needs to come from fiber and apparel companies, through designing better synthetic fabrics that don't shed their fibers as readily. But in searching for support to study the issue further, Browne found that the leaders in the industry, including some of the most progressive clothing companies, such as Patagonia, weren't interested, and his efforts at fundraising have received only one small grant from a clothing brand over the past year.
Designing better textiles is just one part of the solution, though, especially considering how many articles of synthetic clothing would need to be replaced, and how long that would take, in order to make a big impact. The other part of the solution is building better filtering systems for both residential washing machines (either as a component of the machines, or as an add-on) and for municipal wastewater treatment plants, which might be able to reduce the amount of plastic microfibers entering waterways.
And the real dangers of these microfibers to us as humans may not be immediately obvious, because microplastics in the ocean might seem like a far away problem, but according to Browne, the most abundant form of waste material found in habitats around the world is clothing fibers, and it can contaminate not just water, but also food and air.
"Ingested and inhaled fibers carry toxic materials and a third of the food we eat is contaminated with this material." - Browne
These ingested fibers, Browne found, can accumulate in the body (at least in animal studies), but not enough is known yet about how much of this material is in the environment already, or how microfibers affect the food chain, even though it poses "a huge problem" for the environment.
Michael covered the issue several years ago, but unfortunately, it doesn't seem to have gotten any traction in the industry or in the media since then, but if you'd like to raise awareness directly with the companies you buy from, one way could be through social media, as a recent update to Browne's Twitter account suggested, by sending them a link to his study or other articles about microfiber pollution. Until something changes, though, perhaps we as TreeHuggers ought to seek out mostly (or only) clothing and fabrics made from natural fibers, so our purchases aren't enabling more microplastic pollution.