Microplastics pollution in oceans, rivers and lakes are not only made of microbeads and broken down pieces of plastic coming from bags, bottles etc. On the contrary, multiple studies have found that synthetic fibers coming from our clothes make up the biggest share of microplastics in the environment. (for example, according to a study by IUCN nearly 34%). Dr. Mark Browne, an ecologist and postdoctoral fellow at the National Center of Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, California, found in 2011 that microfibers made up 85% of human-made debris on shorelines around the world. He stated that one single synthetic garment can shed more than 1,900 microfibers per wash, with fleece being the worst offender. More than 4,500 fibers can be released per gram of clothing per wash, according to preliminary data from the Plastic Soup Foundation. And many of our clothes are totally, or partially, made of polyester, polyethylene, acrylic or elastane.
When these microfibers end up in our washing machines, they are then discharged in sewage water and potentially end up in the oceans where they are eaten by aquatic sealife. Just like microbeads, they travel up the food chain where they end up on our plates. Professor Sherri Mason, who works for the State University of New York Fredonia, is not necessarily concerned with the plastic fibers themselves, but with their ability to absorb persistent organic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and to concentrate them in animals’ tissues.
Miriam Diamond, earth sciences professor at the University of Toronto lab, believes fast fashion could play a big role in microfiber pollution. “What I suspect is that some of the cheaper fabrics will more easily shed fibers. It’s probably that the fibers aren’t as long or that they aren’t spun as well,” Diamond said. Inditex, mother company of Zara and Massimo Duti among others, said microfibers fall into the category of issues covered by its Global Water Strategy, which includes ongoing plans to evaluate and improve wastewater management at its mills. H&M and Topshop declined to comment on the microfiber issue.
One solution to the microfiber issue could be waterless washing machines, one of which is being developed by Colorado-based Tersus Solutions. Tersus, with funding from Patagonia, has developed a waterless washing machine in which textiles are washed in pressurized carbon dioxide. Another solution could be a filter on home washing machines, but the washing machine industry is not yet tackling the problem.
So, what can we do in the meantime?
1. Buy clothes made from natural fibers such as cotton, linen, and wool (preferably eco-certified)
2. Avoid purchasing cheaply-made, “fast fashion” clothes, whenever possible.
3. Buy a washing machine lint filter.
4. Buy a Cora Ball.
5. Buy a Guppy Friend wash bag.
6. Fill up your washing machine.
7. Use a colder wash setting.
8. Dry spin at low revs.
9. Wash less frequently.
10. Sign the petition to stop Microfiber Plastic Pollution by Story of Stuff here.
Watch The Story of Microfibers