Scientists say plastic microfibers are now found everywhere on Earth including inside our bodies
We are all looking for simple ways to move toward a greener, more prosperous future. Taking part in recycling and reducing consumption of plastics and using environmentally safe products are great ways to help. Now, a new science is telling us that our efforts are just beginning. We’ve been focused mainly on the pollutants that we can see but at a microscopic level, synthetic fibers have managed to infiltrate every part of Earth, from the deepest parts of the ocean to the highest mountain tops. The unseen microfiber pollution makes up 1.5 million tons out of the estimated 8 million metric tons of plastics that end up in the ocean each year.
Microfibers and microplastic pollution mainly from clothes we wear are already in the food chain and most likely inside our bodies right now. Scientists aren’t sure what the impact is on our health, or how it will impact the food chain. These microscopic pieces of material are so tiny that they can’t be cleaned up, at least not by known methods. So what can be done about it?
Synthetic fibers (e.g. polyester, nylon) are one of the biggest contributors of microplastic pollution, contaminating our waterways and environment. REDUCE microfiber pollution by buying clothes made from NATURAL FIBERS (cotton, hemp, wool). #ecofashion #sfsfwi #stopmicrowaste pic.twitter.com/fhzxbJyv6j
— SFSFWI (@SFSFWi) June 23, 2018
Emily Woglom, executive vice president of the nonprofit environmental group, Ocean Conservancy notes that the solution is to move away from using so much synthetic fabric. Each time it is washed, it releases microfibers, even with conventional lint traps.
“Once microplastics get into the environment, you can’t sieve the entire ocean,” said Woglom. “The focus has to be on doing as much as you can to prevent the waste in the first place.”
This is in keeping with the push to reuse and upcycle, preventing the need to recycle so much of our waste.
According to one estimate, 700,000 microfibers are released in a single load of laundry, which is “roughly equivalent to the surface area of a pack of gum.” It doesn’t seem like that much, but imagine every single person contributing this much with each load of laundry.
The microfibers end up at wastewater treatment plants but even there they are not filtered out. Instead, they end up in recycled “biosolids” which are used as fertilizers or released into waterways. This effectively distributes the microfibers to both land and sea.
NBC News notes that progressive clothing apparel companies are among the first to begin tackling the problem. Patagonia, a company known for its quality fleece garments, worked with university researchers to examine microfiber shedding from synthetic fleece. They found that each time their garments were washed, it released an average of 1.17 grams of microfibers. They also found that seven times more fibers were released from Top-load wash machines since they tend to use more water and agitate the water more than front-load washing machines.
As the company looks for ways to make clothes that release fewer microfibers, they recommend putting fleece garments inside special reusable washing bags that trap the fibers. One brand they advised was called “Guppyfriend” by Stop! Micro Waste. The bags retail for around $37 and can be reused many times but are also fully recyclable and of 100% polyamide. The bags can be purchased online
Did you know that up to 700,000 micro plastic fibres can be released in ONE single wash and it’s likely end up in the ocean and up the food chain…
There is a solution! We are offering GUPPYFRIEND- a wash bag that traps up to 99% of microfibres at the COST PRICE of £17.50! 💚🤗 pic.twitter.com/JFH1CpYngy
— The Clean Kilo (@TheCleanKilo) August 13, 2018
Of course, you can move to wear clothing made from natural fibers like cotton or wool, but the tradeoff is that it takes more water and land, not to mention caring for more animals in a world where agriculture is a leading contributor to climate change. There just isn’t a perfect solution.
Stephanie Karba, who researched microfibers along with Patagonia said:
“No matter what material you use, there will be some impact,” Karba said. “If it’s synthetic, we have to worry about microfiber pollution; for cotton, there will be some impact with water consumption; if it’s wool, there are difficulties in terms of animal husbandry. That perfect bio-based, biodegradable, nonresource-extractive material is a unicorn in the apparel industry.”
Scientists are just beginning to understand how much microfibers end up in our environment, and it’s not just from our laundry. The pollutants come from tires on our streets, paint on ships, dust from our cities, and to a lesser degree from household products.
The worst part is knowing that these fibers are in the food chain and thus, inside our bodies right now.
“Studies have not only found small plastic fibers in the digestive tracts of whales and sharks, but also in a variety of fish and shellfish that people consume. Experts say there isn’t enough scientific research yet to know whether these microplastics could affect human health when eaten,” wrote Denise Chow for NBC News.
As we tackle the problem of pollutants we can see, we must be aware that we also have to tackle the problem of those that remain unseen. Microfibers are very much a part of the problem and really they are now a part of all of us.
Featured image: Cells via Pixabay