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250,000 plastic microfibers. Remember that number.
That’s how many microplastics one fleece jacket sheds in one wash cycle. Below are two solutions that will actually make an impact and four that will not.
When we hear the termmicroplastics in the ocean many of us picture the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Patch consists of large plastic items, like water bottles, straws and plastic bags, floating amongst fish and seaweed. That’s not what we’re talking about here.
Yes, these large, plastics break down into microplastics.However, the single greatest contributor to microplastic pollution in our oceans is actually synthetic clothing fibers (polyester, nylon and acrylic).1
At <5mm in length, most microplastics are not visible to the naked eye, so they quietly float on by without our knowing.
And it's not looking good.
Microplastics are foreign, unnatural particles that the planet and our bodies are unable to break down. Instead, microplastics continue to break apart into smaller and smaller pieces while spreading throughout our planet, our food chain and even our own bodies.
This is also cause for concern because large quantities of chemicals are used to produce synthetic textiles. As the plastic microfibers move through the environment, from our washing machines through our watersheds and into our bodies, they have the potential to distribute hazardous chemicals in a manner known as leaching.
In addition, foreign organisms including bacteria and viruses, attach to the plastic fibers as they move through the ecosystem.
We’re beginning to learn how plastic particles affect the very beginning levels of the food chain. “Scientists are finding that zooplankton regularly eat microplastics, reducing their appetite for actual food. And when predators like fish larvae eat the zooplankton, they take on toxic plastic particles.”2
“Within the food chain, these particles have been found to cause physical and chemical impacts, resulting in starvation and reproductive consequences...”3
“PET (polyethylene terephthalate), one of the most prevalent types of plastic, is known to carry chemical contaminants including Bisphenol A an endocrine disruptor that can cause reproductive disorders, cardiovascular problems and cancer.”4
The latest, ‘plasticosis,’ is a disease assigned to sea birds who have developed internal scarring from the consumption of toxic microplastics.5
According to a recent article byWired Magazine,“Plastics are Devastating the Guts of Sea Birds,”“…at least 11 billion pounds of [microplastic] particles float at the surface,…[seabirds’] diet now also includes substantial amounts ofsynthetic poison.”
The discovery of Plasticosis comes from arecent study published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials. They found that the scarring of the intestinal tract caused the birds to become more vulnerable to infection and parasites, and it damaged their ability to digest food and absorb certain vitamins.6
While this finding is significant, it's the larger question that is more concerning to many...if seabirds are affected in this way, how are we/will we as humans be affected?
Vibrio is a common bacteria found on microplastics. Although it’s not a newly discovered bacteria, it’s one we all need to be aware of. Vibrio causes severe illness when people eat raw or undercooked seafood.5
As microplastics continue to proliferate, it’s likely Vibrio will too.
Two real ways to make a difference as individuals and as a society:
Let’s go back to the fleece that sheds 250,000 plastic microfibers each time it’s washed.
On current trend, the number of plastic microfibers entering the ocean between 2015 – 2050 could accumulate to more than 22 million tons.7 That’s equivalent to the weight of almost 3 million elephants.
And that’s just from our synthetic textiles. This number doesn’t account for other plastic pollution like the water bottles, plastic bags, fish nets, etc. Clearly, something significant needs to be done to stop this pollution.
How do we halt the shedding of synthetic clothing fibers?
1. Opt for responsibly-grown and crafted natural fiber clothing and gear.
This is the simplest in theory and most effective solution. It addresses the problem at the very top of the funnel. Natural fiber textiles don’t shed plastic microfibers, period.
Unfortunately, transitioning our wardrobe and gear closets is easier said than done because synthetic clothing and gear have become ubiquitous with outdoor recreation.
Brands have spent decades and billions of dollars researching and developing synthetic fibers for outdoor-related products. Need a base layer? Grab your sweat-wicking polyester long underwear. Need a top layer? Grab your fleece. Need a windproof layer? Grab your nylon jacket.Need a towel? Grab your microfiber.
While somewhat challenging, swapping synthetic clothing and gear for natural fiber alternatives can be done and is the best solution.
To design a wardrobe and gear kit around natural fiber products, you’ll need to think outside the box. And you’ll need to know your textiles. We’re putting together a blog post shortly highlighting the pros and cons of various natural fiber textiles to help you out.Stay tuned!
Here’s a tip in the meantime, linen (flax),hemp , wool, alpaca, and TENCEL certified modal and lyocell are all great options. Organic cotton works well for certain applications too.
We’ll be adding our personal wardrobe and gear kit swaps over timehere.
2. Own less and what we do own, we use for a long, long time.
The demand for synthetic textiles has grown from 9 million tons in 1975 to 28 million tons in 2020.8 It would be impossible to produce enough natural fiber textiles to meet that demand without acquiring more land and resources.
Instead, we need to decrease the demand for both synthetic clothing and gear, in particular, and new clothing and gear in general. In other words, it would benefit the planet significantly if we, as individuals and as a society, stop buying cheap, short-lived synthetic items.
By thoughtfully purchasing durable, versatile natural fiber products that we will love using for a very long time, our wardrobes and gear kits will become smaller. They’ll also require less frequent turnover simplifying life in the process.
As consumer demands shift, brands will take notice. They’ll have to produce more natural fiber products to remain relevant. For large companies, this will take time. Excitingly, there are many small, new brands, increasing in number every day, that offer climate-friendly natural fiber alternatives includingLava Linens, PAKA, Woolly Clothing, Pact, Seed Pants, Rustek and more.
While the above solutions have the potential to truly impact the microplastics in our oceans, here are four solutions that some pedal, but will have negligible impacts.
1. Use a front-loading washing machine instead of a top-loading machine.
A front-loading machine can reduce the number of plastic microfibers from shedding by five times.9It’s a worthwhile practice. However, the responsibility is put on the individual and it doesn’t address the root cause of microplastic pollution.
2. Use a filter, Guppy Bag or Cora Ball when doing laundry.
While these tools capture some of the plastic microfibers from entering the wastewater treatment plant, the microfibers are still shed. Therefore, they still need to be disposed of in a landfill where they have the opportunity to enter the air, water and soil.
3. Filter the fibers at wastewater treatment plants.
While wastewater treatment plants can prevent plastic microfibers from continuing to the watershed, it’s not an entirely effective solution in two ways.
For one, while “…wastewater treatment plants filter between 83 – 99.9% of fibers, depending on how advanced the facility is…a city the size of Toronto could still be emitting hundreds of billions of microfibers each year.”10
Two, the microfibers that are filtered must go somewhere. At wastewater treatment plants, they often end up in sludge, the solid byproduct from treatment facilities’ filtering processes. When the sludge dries out, the microfibers have the potential to be released into the air.
Often, sludge (including the contained plastic microfibers) is used as fertilizer for farm fields. So while the microfibers aren’t necessarily destined for the ocean, they have established themselves in the environment.
4. Use synthetic garments for longer.
While this concept may help decrease demand for new synthetic clothing and gear, hanging onto old synthetic products isn’t necessarily good for the environment. In fact, one study found that older fleece jackets can shed up to 80% more fibers than new jackets.8
You’ll notice the above four solutions don’t address the root cause of plastic microfiber pollution. Instead, they simply shift the responsibility of capturing and disposing to another party. These are not the solutions that are going to prevent the accumulation of 22 million tons of plastic microfibers in our oceans.
Bottom line, we’re creating a toxic world.
Synthetic fiber production is expected to continue to increase. It’s what companies have prioritized and it’s what we as consumers have been demanding. As a result, the level of plastic microfiber pollution in our oceans, air and soil will also increase.
Science is offering a glimpse into what the future global health impacts may be. The problem is, once plastics are in the environment, they’re very difficult to remove. By the time we fully understand the implications, it may be too late.
Be a part of the natural fiber movement now to help change our trajectory. Help spread the word about synthetic clothing fibers and microplastics in our oceans. And if you have any questions,feel free to reach out!
1.Boucher, J. and Friot D. (2017). Primary Microplastics in the Oceans: A Global Evaluation of Sources. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN. 43pp.https://portals.iucn.org/library/sites/library/files/documents/2017-002-En.pdf
2.Simon, M. (2023, March 8). “Microplastics are Polluting the Ocean at a Shocking Rate”Wired Magazine.https://www.wired.com/story/microplastics-are-polluting-the-ocean-at-a-shocking-rate/
3.Hartline, N.L., Bruce, N.J., Karba S.N., Ruff, E.O., Sonar, S.U., and Holden, P.A. (2016) “Microfiber Masses Recovered from Conventional Machine Washing of New or Aged Garments”,Environmental Science & Technology,Vol. 50, No.21, pp.11532-11538"https://brenmicroplastics.weebly.com/
4.Gayle, D. (2022, March 18). “Recycled Plastic Bottles Leach More Chemicals into Drinks Review Finds”,The Guardian.https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/mar/18/recycled-plastic-bottles-leach-more-chemicals-into-drinks-review-finds
5.Simon, M. (2023, March 27). “Plastics are Devastating the Guts of Seabirds”,Wired Magazine.https://www.wired.com/story/plastics-are-devastating-the-guts-of-seabirds/
6.Hayley, S. Charlton-Howardet.al., 'Plasticosis': Characterising macro- and microplastic-associated fibrosis in seabird tissues,Journal of Hazardous Materials (2023). DOI: 10.1016/j.jhasmat.2023.131090
7.Ellen MacArthur Foundation, (2017). "A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion's future, 2017.",https://archive.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/A-New-Textiles-Economy.pdf.Textile Exchange. (n.d.).Materials Dashboard. Retrieved March 22, 2023 fromhttps://textileexchange.org/materials-dashboard/
9.O’Connor, M.C. (2016, June 20). “Patagonia’s New Study Finds Fleece Jackets are a Serious Pollutant”,https://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-gear/gear-news/patagonias-new-study-finds-fleece-jackets-are-serious-pollutant/
10.Simon, M. (2020, June 22). “Who’s to Blame for Plastic Microfiber Pollution”,Wired Magazine.https://www.wired.com/story/whos-to-blame-for-plastic-microfiber-pollution/