By Anna Brones
Visualize a sea of plastic. You might picture waves of plastic bags, but you should add to that visual a rolling sea of tiny fibers called microplastics that shed from our clothes, including our yoga pants, polar fleece pullovers and nylon windbreakers. That’s exactly where we’re headed, a sea full of plastic, a surprising amount of which is coming from what we wear.
What are miscroplastics?
Microplastics are small plastic particles that are 5 millimeters long or less that come from any type of plastic, including our synthetic clothes.. While difficult to see with the naked eye, the abundance of microfibers is turning the ocean into a plastic soup. According to a 2018 report by the International Union of for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the amount of microplastics that end up in the ocean is upwards of 1.5 million tons per year, about the same as if every single person on the planet threw a plastic bag in the ocean every week.
How clothing causes plastic pollution
From single-use packaging to synthetic, petroleum-based fibers in our wardrobes, plastic is all around us. Today, almost 60% of our clothes are made of synthetic fibers, including polyester, nylon, and elastane, and our hunger for fast fashion has only escalated demand for these low-cost materials. To put our plastic consumption in perspective, consider this: 1950, about 2.3 million tons of plastic was produced. That number skyrocketed to 448 million tons in 2015. The more plastic there is in the world, the more of it ends up in our oceans. It is estimated that by 2050, plastic pollution could outweigh the amount of fish in the ocean, and by that time just about every species of seabird will be eating plastic for dinner, too.
How plastic travels from clothes to ocean
When fabrics are washed, they release microscopic fibers, eventually ending up in the sewage system and making their way into rivers, lakes and oceans. One study showed that just one load of washing can result in the release of 750,000 microfibers. Sewage treatment plants are not equipped to capture small particles. As a result, it is estimated that today more than a third of primary microplastics in the ocean are the result of washing synthetic textiles. Even though natural and cellulosic microfibers have been found in the ocean, petroleum-based microfibers are particularly worrisome because they can take centuries to break down.
How microplastics impact the environment
What will happen to our oceans, marine life and our own health as microplastics continue to invade our environment? Scientists are working to answer these questions, but we know enough to be highly alarmed. There is a growing body of research showing the negative impacts of microplastics on marine life, linking them to reproductive and neurotoxicity impacts.
The threat to human health
As those microplastics reach the oceans, they are consumed by marine life, working their way through the food chain. Our plastic wardrobes can ultimately make their way onto our plates; microplastics have been found in everything from table salt to mussels. The research is sharpening about the effect on human health, with some studies linking microplastics to inflamation and reduced immunity, although more research needs to be done. In 2018, a team in Indonesia launched the world’s largest study into whether or not microplastics are harmful to human health, and earlier this year, a study showed the link between microplastic ingestion and inflammatory bowel disease in zebrafish, a model organism used to study our own gut conditions.
What can you do about it?
There’s no evidence that the production of microplastics will slow any time soon. The market for low cost and disposable plastics are a boon to the oil industry, which is pouring billions of dollars into plastic producing facilities to keep up with the demand that is projected to account for a 40% increase in plastic production over the next decade. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has estimated that while today only about 5% of oil production goes into the making of new plastics, by 2050, it will be 20%, contributing to what has been deemed the “near permanent contamination of the natural environment.” It will require the efforts of citizens and our leaders to come together to combat the growing threat of plastic pollution. Here’s how you can make a difference.
- Donate to, join, or sign plastic-free pledges with Plastic Pollution Coalition or 5 Gyres, two leading campaigns fighting plastic pollution.
- Keep up to date on new legislation and citizen groups working on plastic and microplastic issues by following Story of Stuff.
- Sign up for Break Free From Plastic , which lists initiatives and grassroots efforts from around the world and runs a #breakfreefromplastic campus pledge for colleges and universities.
- Donate to BYOBottle, a global initiative to eliminate single-use plastic in the music industry.
- Lobby for a proposed bill in New York that would require a plastic pollution label on synthetic clothing. A similar bill in California was introduced in 2018, but voted down.
- In 2018, Connecticut established a Synthetic Microfiber Working Group, you can read their meeting notes here.
- Follow state campaigns fighting plastic at its source. In Texas, Portland Citizens United is fighting Exxon’s massive buildout of ethylene crackers, which help turn natural gas into plastics. Similar grassroots efforts are taking place elsewhere, like the recent People Over Petrochem in West Virginia.
- Opt for natural fibers, like cotton, linen and wool. Wash synthetic clothing less frequently, and consider using a Guppy Friend wash bag to capture the microfibers.
- Use a liquid laundry soap, as powders can scrub off more microfibers, wash at a cold setting, and air dry rather than tumble dry.
“Planet or Plastic?” National Geographic is running a multiyear initiative focused on the enormous issue of plastic, with ongoing coverage of the issue, from plastic straws to microplastic rain, as well as a plastic pledge.
“Connecting the Threads: A Microfibers Research Guide” Compiled by Story of Stuff, this is a rundown of important statistics and articles related to the topic of microplastics
“Fast Fashion, Fatal Fibers” This Greenpeace report takes a look at the extreme cost of our fast fashion habit.
“Earth Has a Hidden Plastic Problem—Scientists Are Hunting It
Down” A three-part series published by