Of the 8 million metric tons of plastic waste that enters our oceans every year, as much as 236,000 tons of it are microplastics.
Microplastics are small pieces of plastic (less than 5 mm in diameter) that enter and pollute the environment.
There are 2 categories of microplastics.
- Primary microplastics are manufactured plastics that are 5.0 mm in size or less before entering the ocean. Examples are microbeads, microfibers capsules, or pellets.
- Secondary microplastics are the result of larger pieces of plastic breaking down into smaller pieces.
Microbeads are pieces of plastic, usually spherical in shape, that are less than one millimeter in diameter. They are most commonly found in exfoliating personal care products and toothpastes. When they are washed down the drain, they subsequently pass unfiltered through sewage treatment plants and make their way into rivers and canals. Wildlife can mistake the beads for food and ingest them.
Microfibers are what we are here to discuss. They are fibers that enter the water from washing clothing made of synthetic materials, like polyester or nylon. They are smaller than the diameter of a strand of silk, which is itself about 1/5 the diameter of a human hair. They are so tiny that many pass right through the filters on our washing machine and water treatment facilities and right into the ocean.
Why are microfibers in synthetics? Microfibers are what keeps our polyester from being itchy and having a plastic feeling like they did in the 70s. Microfibers were first introduced in the '70s in Japan, then Europe in the '80s and America in the '90s.
Microfibers allow synthetics to wick moisture. They can also make textiles tough yet very soft-to-the-touch. They bring a lot of positive qualities to the synthetic textiles but now we are realizing microfibers are causing us to eat our own clothing.
How many microfibers are in the ocean?
- As much as 35% of all primary microplastics in the ocean are from washing synthetic fibers.
- Washing clothes releases half a million tonnes of plastic microfibers into the ocean every year, equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles.
- A single load of laundry could release up to 700,000 microfibers (this is a very conservative estimate).
- There could be as much as 1.4 million trillion microfibers in our ocean right now.
What are the effects to marine life? Microfibers often contain chemicals added during manufacturing. On top of that, microfibers have a static charge making them attract and absorb other toxins in the water. The toxic microfibers are then eaten by small marine animals and enter the food chain. Microfibers and other microplastics can then cause gastrointestinal infections and blockages, reproductive problems, and starvation. Tiny particles of plastic even build up in fish brains, altering their behavior.
So how are we eating our clothes?
- Microplastic filled marine life will ultimately work their way up the food chain to our tables.
- Around 65% of the shrimp in the North Sea contain synthetic fibers.
- 73% of fish caught at mid-ocean depths in the Northwest Atlantic had microplastic in their stomachs.
- There are no regulatory limits on the levels of microplastics in bottled water.
- Micro fibers were found in bottled water produced by 11 of the world’s largest brands, purchased from 19 locations in 9 countries.
- 83% of tested tap water samples from major metropolitan areas around the world were contaminated with plastic fibers.
Once microplastics enter our oceans it is extremely difficult to remove. The best we can do is reduce amount of new microplastics entering the oceans.
Great strides have been made to reduce microbeads. Several countries have banned microbeads in manufacturing of personal care products. Unfortunately, the ban of microfibers is very unlikely, so we need to look at alternative solutions.
What can be done to decrease microfibers? Some suggested solutions include:
- Develop an eco-friendly coating on fabrics to prevent release of fibers
- Develop an eco-friendly detergent to prevent release of the fibers
- Develop synthetic yarns and fabric that prevent the release - the yarn density, fiber length and yarn twist can affect the amount of microfibers shed
- Develop a filter built into new washing machines and water management facilities
See my tips on washing polyester and filters you can purchase to find out what you can do.
Polartec has developed a new knit construction that releases up to 5 times less microfibers than other fleece. They unveiled this new fabric, called Power Air, at the end of November 2018. A single fleece jacket can shed up to 250,000 microfibers during a single wash so the potential reduction is significant. Not only does it reduce microfiber shedding but it is also made with 54% recycled plastic. I'm excited to offer this fabric for purchase by the yard.
This is a great video that explains the problem of microfibers.