When I read about this topic in the news, I knew I had to share this with you. Microplastic pollution includes microfibers from our synthetic clothes is in our oceans, drinking water and food. Because up to a third of the microfibers comes from washing our synthetic clothes, the clothes we buy and how we care for them all play a role in this. The good news is we can change our habits (more below on what you can do).
Plastic contamination of our food and water comes from every type of plastic but I am going to focus on microfibers from our clothes. Synthetic microfibers come from polyester (including fleece), nylon, and acrylic. Not only is their manufacturing toxic but these synthetic fabrics shed thousands of microfibers every time you wash them.
Why should you care about microplastic pollution?
If you eat food, eat fish, drink water, have children and/or care about sea creatures and our oceans.
What you need to know about micoplastic pollution:
- “According to a study led by the World Economic Forum, 32 percent of the 78 million tons of plastic packaging generated annually across the globe ends up in waterways and storm drains where it eventually flows into oceans. That rate is the equivalent of a dump truck pouring a load of plastic into the oceans every minute of every day.” (2)
- Between 15% to 31% of marine plastic pollution could be from tiny particles released by household and industrial products and 35% of this microplastic pollution comes from washing synthetic textiles. (3)
- For each person living on Earth, there is close to one ton of plastic on the planet. (4)
- Microfibers are tiny, so they can easily move through wastewater treatment plants. Synthetic fibers are problematic because they do not biodegrade, and tend to bind with molecules of harmful chemical pollutants found in wastewater, such as pesticides or flame retardants. Natural fibers, such as cotton or wool, biodegrade over time. (5)
- Each cycle of a washing machine could release more than 700,000 microscopic plastic fibers into the environment, according to a study. They found that acrylic was the worst offender, releasing nearly 730,000 tiny synthetic particles per wash, five times more than polyester-cotton blend fabric, and nearly 1.5 times as many as polyester. (6)
Why it matters:
- People who eat seafood ingest up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic every year. (1)
- Environmentalists have suggested there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050. (2)
- Microplastics end up in the stomachs of sea life (which you may be eating for dinner which means you’re eating plastic). (3)
- In a small 2015 study out of California, 33% of the fish sampled had manmade debris in their gut, and 80% of that debris was made up of tiny threads. These microfibers can attract toxins that are in the water, so when fish eat them, they get lodged in the stomach and intestine and the toxins sit inside the fish… and then you. (3)
- Studies have shown health problems among plankton and other small organisms that eat microfibers, which then make their way up the food chain. Researchers have found high numbers of fibers inside fish and shellfish sold at markets. (5)
Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.
Here is what I want to share with you. Something I learned from working as a scientist Just because a group of chemicals or pollutants have not been previously identified/measured/found, doesn’t mean they haven’t always been there – it means we haven’t been looking OR we didn’t have the technology to measure for these chemicals. Once emerging contaminants are identified, they become ubiquitous because everyone else starts looking for them too. My point? We have all likely been drinking and eating plastic AND we probably have been for years.
Still not convinced?
Check out this article from OrbMedia. According to research by Orb and a researcher at the University of Minnesota – “From the halls of the U.S. Capitol to the shores of Lake Victoria in Uganda, women, children, men, and babies are consuming plastic with every glass of water.” (7)
Before you reach for that bottled water in a plastic bottle – don’t. The plastic fibers are in that too. And turns out that plastic is also in your food because guess what – food is prepared with water, so is your beer, wine and any other beverage you consume.
What can you do?
I ask implore you to do something to stop adding to the problem and instead contribute to the solution.
- Donate to one of the organizations trying to fix this issue: In our hands, the ocean conservancy, Plastic Soup, Rozalia project, and 5 Gyres.
- Recycle plastic bags and plastic air puffs that come in your mail order boxes here:
- Whole Foods
- Change how you care for your clothes to reduce the amount of synthetic fibers that are discharged.
- Shift your shopping habits to avoid synthetic fibers altogether (hint – this is easier if you shop secondhand).
- Read this article which outlines seven things you can do!
- Check out this handy infographic that outlines 10 ways to break your single use plastic habit.
More information/references/source articles/more information:
- Humans purchase almost 20,000 plastic bottles every second. (1)
- Fewer than half of the bottles bought in 2016 were collected for recycling and just 7% of those collected were turned into new bottles. (1)
- Most plastic bottles produced end up in landfills or in the ocean. (1)
- “Up to 22 million pounds of plastic waste are entering the five Great Lakes annually; half of that amount has become washed up in Lake Michigan. That amount is equal to 100 Olympic-sized swimming pools becoming filled with plastic bottles year after year.” (1)
- Europe and Central Asia alone dump the equivalent of 54 plastic bags worth of microplastics per person per week into the oceans. (3)
- Most plastic is going to go to one of two places – waterways or landfills – who doesn’t want one in their backyard? (4)
- The impact of microplastic pollution is not fully understood but studies have suggested that it has the potential to poison the food chain. (6)
- A million bottles a minute
- Aquariums join forces
- We’re eating polyester (yes that is plastic) in our seafood
- 7 billion tons of plastic
- Microfibers polluting the food chain
- Washing clothes releases fibers
- Invisible fibers