We know now that the amount of plastic we use on a daily basis is having a hugely detrimental effect on our oceans. It’s been well publicised, there are now many initiatives working to fight against the amount of plastic that ends up in the ocean.
But there is another environmental disaster going on that we can’t see and aren’t aware of, and it’s already a very prevalent problem. When you wash a synthetic item of clothing in your washing machine it’s estimated that 1,900 individual fibers can fall off. This form of microfibre migration from synthetic textiles sees 40% of the escaped fibers pass through wastewater treatment plants, before entering waterways or the ocean. We know this happens on a scale that hasn’t been documented as widely as larger plastic pollution or microplastics, such as nurdles. Much of the larger plastic pieces end up on shorelines or in one of the 5 ocean gyres, such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Microfibers are difficult to document
Microfibers, however, are much harder to document because of their tiny size, many are observed on shorelines where waste water is released. As much as 2,900 tonnes of microfibers a year from clothing passes through wastewater treatment into our rivers and estuaries. So, as well as entering our oceans synthetic fibers make their way into our rivers and inland waterways on an alarming scale.
A study conducted by ecologist Mark Browne found that 85% of man-made material on shorelines he surveyed around the world were microfibers, including nylon and acrylic. It’s worth noting that this is just the volume found on shorelines, it’s much more difficult to collect data for the amount of synthetic fibers that are now present in our oceans and waterways as a whole. This is arguably where the real damage is done, not only are our waterways being poisoned by microfiber plastic, but in turn, our marine and aquatic life is as well. Whether by accident or by their tendency to mistake microplastics of all types for food, waterborne creatures are ingesting microfibers on a huge scale.
A study on Great Lakes in North America found synthetic fibers in fish in the area. Sherri Mason, a professor working on the project found synthetic fibers 'weaving themselves into the gastrointestinal tract’ of great lakes fish when cut open.
Into the food chain
Herein lies the biggest problem, these plastics are making their way invariably into the food chain, and through the process of bioaccumulation, into our diets. Not only is this kind of plastic pollution finding its way into the fish we eat, but it’s also having a serious effect on the livelihoods of aquatic animals. A study conducted by the University of Exeter, in which crabs were given food contaminated with synthetic microfiber plastic, showed reduced food consumption and energy levels, essentially reducing their ability to grow naturally.
The wider implication is that this is an issue we can’t see, it’s an issue that isn’t given nearly enough limelight and is not publicised anywhere near as much as general plastic pollution. Even initiatives that are designed to help the wider plastic problem are interacting with the microfiber issue in ways we may not have expected. For example, outdoor clothing brand Patagonia, who has a well-regarded track record of environmental awareness, manufacture some of their clothing from recycled bottles. This causes a unique problem, whereby plastic bottles are taken out of the pollution cycle, re-made into clothing, then the synthetic fibers of which make their way back into the environment. Breaking the bottle down into millions of fibrous pieces could be worse than not recycling it at all.
In terms of finding a way to reduce the amount of microfiber plastic that enters our waterways, there are a few options in the conversation. The first, and perhaps most pragmatic is adding a filter to washing machines to trap the fibers before they can enter the water system. Although this would be difficult to implement, considering the prevalence of washing machines in everyday life, and the commitment that would be required (at huge monetary cost) by the manufacturers to produce and deliver such filters. Another solution that is currently on the market and available to purchase is a product called GUPPYFRIEND. This is a washing bag that you put your clothes in before they go into the washing machine. In the wash, GUPPYFRIEND collects any fibers that might have fallen off, all you have to do is empty it into the bin.
Although more research is needed into the extent of the problem of microfiber pollution and possible solutions. It’s clear that it isn’t getting enough publicity, before reading this blog, have you honestly ever heard of this environmental issue before? I certainly hadn’t.