By now you’ve seen the pictures; plastic bottles and bags making up garbage islands in our oceans and waterways across the globe. But, a big part of the problem isn’t as easy to spot. Try as we might to eliminate plastics from our lives, it seems to find its way into more and more things we wouldn’t expect. Check the tag on that athleisure wear you’ve been eyeing! You’ll probably see some materials you weren’t expecting, and the damage they’re doing is greater than you might think.
The art of textiles is as old as humanity, and traditionally, our clothing has been made of that which has been naturally and readily available to us! Wool, cotton, linen, silk, and hemp all have held an important place in the garment industry, but are slowly but surely being replaced by microfibers. Plenty of clothing manufacturers are turning to these materials for a plethora of reasons, the main driving factor being reduced cost of production and the increased profits that follow. Microfibers such as fleece, nylon, acrylic, and polyester are far cheaper than organic materials, and tend to be stronger as well, requiring less thoughtful care and upkeep than your favorite cashmere sweater. But, as with many things, the environmentally harmful aspects of this choice are intentionally overlooked for the sake of profit.
To understand the full damage of these microplastics, it is important to remember we are all part of the circle of life! Many of these fibers end up digested by small creatures in the ocean, such a plankton and krill, who in turn are eaten by larger creatures, which frequently end up being eaten by humans. These microfibers introduce toxins, such as synthetic dyes, flame retardants, and waterproofing and antimicrobial agents into the food chain at the smallest level and have been proven to find their way all the way up to the fish that we eat. And with millions of people washing their microfiber garments every day, you can imagine the amount of plastic shreds that are entering our water systems. In case that isn’t fathomable, a recent study revealed that 73% of fish caught mid-level in the Northwest Atlantic had microplastics in their digestive systems.
How much washing does it take to fill the bellies of so many fish with these plastics? Environmental Science and Technology has released an estimate that a population of 100,000 humans would release approximately 1.02 kilograms of microfibers every day, or 793 pounds of these fibers annually being shed from these garments. When you include the entire global population, the number is even more staggering and the crisis we face comes into clearer focus.
Unfortunately, that's not the only way our microfibers are coming full circle. A study published in April 2018 detailed that eighty-one percent of tap and bottled water samples tested contained human debris, microfibers coming second in quantity only to polypropylene, the plastic found in water bottle caps. Samples of salt and beer were also found to be contaminated, raising our intake of plastic even higher!
You can stop purchasing fabrics made of synthetic fibers, but what about the clothing you already have in your closet? There are a few cleaning tips to reduce the amount of fibers they release with each wash. Filling your washing machine with full loads has proven to reduce in-wash fabric friction, resulting in less fiber shedding. Shortening the overall washing time has had the same effect. An obvious one, wash fewer loads of laundry, and only when necessary to reduce the number of fibers coming from your household, and to save water in general! When drying, try air drying when possible to avoid fiber-loosening tumble cycles. Hot water loosens fibers as well, and makes them easier to break off, so wash cold as much as possible. Washing on heavy duty cycles can be bad for keeping fibers where they belong, on your clothes, so keep it gentle when able. And finally, along similar lines, avoid washing hard items, such as shoes, in your loads that include these kinds of microfiber garments. These items will knock fibers loose at a much higher rate than if they were washed alone.
There are a few products you can try to reduce the amount of fibers that make it out of your washing machine. Think about investing in a pouch such as the Guppyfriend Washing Bag, which can catch microfibers before they are introduced to your waterways. You can also try a Cora Ball, which accomplishes the same thing in a different way!
Ultimately, the power to make change starts with you, the consumer! Microfiber clothing is only profitable because the we continue to perpetuate its production with our hard earned dollars. To make a change, let your favorite clothing company know you don’t support the use of synthetic fibers in writing and through your voice, and choose the natural-fibered path with companies like Pact instead to let them know through sales. These problems don’t solve themselves, and the sooner we can eliminate microfiber usage, the faster we can stop plastic from ending up in our oceans, animals, and selves!