While we mostly care about the appearance of our clothes, we tend to ignore the material it was made from. As long as it looks good and is comfortable to wear then we’re good to go. But did you know that the clothes we wear are polluting our oceans?
Yes, it’s a fact. Especially the ones that are made from synthetic textiles like nylon, acrylic, and polyester. New studies show that the fibers in our clothes could be poisoning our waterways and food chain on a massive scale. It’s alarming and researchers are finding more and more evidence of the damage. What is it doing to our oceans and food supply? Read on to find out.
10. The Culprit
These microfibers (tiny threads shed from fabric) are fine plastic fibers that are damaging our waterways and food supply. They may be small but don’t underestimate the damage they are doing. When professor Sherri Mason cut open a Great Lakes fish for the first time, she was terrified at what she found. Synthetic fibers were everywhere.
Under a microscope, they looked to be “weaving themselves into the gastrointestinal tract”. Sherri Mason, who works for the State University of New York at Fredonia and had been studying aquatic pollution around the Great Lakes for several years, had never seen anything like it.
9. The Source?
Now researchers are trying to find where these plastic fibers are coming from. In a disturbing study, researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara found that, on average, synthetic fleece jackets let loose 1.7 grams of microfibers each wash. It also found that older jackets shed almost twice as many fibers as new jackets.
The study was funded by outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia, a certified B Corp that also offers grants for environmental work. “These microfibers then travel to your local wastewater treatment plant, where up to 40% of them enter rivers, lakes and oceans,” published on the researchers’ website.
8. Poisoning Our Food Chain
Synthetic microfibers are particularly dangerous because they have the potential to poison the food chain. The fibers’ size also allows them to be easily consumed by fish and other wildlife. These plastic fibers have the potential to accumulate, concentrating toxins in the bodies of larger animals, higher up the food chain.
Microbeads usually found in personal care products, recently got banned in the US, are a better-known variety of microplastic, but recent studies have found microfibers to be even more widespread.
7. Polluted Shorelines
In a radical 2011 paper, Mark Browne, now a senior research associate at the University of New South Wales, Australia, found that microfibers made up 85% of human-made debris on shorelines around the world. That’s more than half.
While Patagonia and other outdoor companies, like Polartec, use recycled plastic bottles as a way to conserve and reduce waste, this latest research shows that the plastic might ultimately end up in the oceans anyway and in a form that’s even more likely to cause problems. Nobody saw it coming but we’re now paying the price.
6. Polluting Oceans And Freshwater
Breaking a plastic bottle into millions of fibrous bits of plastic have shown to be worse than doing nothing at all. What’s even more alarming, the fibers are also being found in freshwater. “This is not just a coastal or marine problem,” said Abigail Barrows, principal investigator of the Global Microplastics Initiative, part of the research group Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation.
Of the almost 2,000 aquatic samples they have processed, about 90% of the debris was microfibers, both in freshwater and the ocean. Microfibers are also the second most common type of debris in Lake Michigan, based on Sherri Mason’s research.
5. Poisoning Animals
Sherri Mason’s research show that microfibers are the most common type of debris in those smaller bodies of water. “The majority [71%] of what we’re finding in the tributaries are actually fibers. They exceed fragments and pellets.”
She discovered that the wildlife is truly being affected. A study out of the University of Exeter, where crabs were given food contaminated with microfibers, found that they affected animals’ behavior. The crabs ate less food overall causing stunted growth over time. The polypropylene was also broken down and transformed into smaller pieces, creating a greater surface area for chemical transmission. The chemicals in the plastic fibers get absorbed in the animals’ tissues.
4. Affecting The Food Chain
Gregg Treinish, founder and executive director of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, which monitors Sherri Barrows’s microfibers work, said studies have led him to stop eating anything from the water. “I don’t want to have eaten fish for 50 years and then say, ‘Oh, whoops’,” he said.
“It absolutely has the potential to move up the food chain,” said Chelsea Rochman, a postdoctoral fellow in conservation biology at the University of California at Davis and the University of Toronto. She warned, however, against a rush to avoid fish: “I think no one’s really asked questions directly about that yet.”
3. Protecting The Environment
Companies that have built their businesses on protecting the environment have been some of the first to pay attention to the growing microfiber issue. Patagonia proposed the Bren School study in 2015, after polyester, the primary component of outdoor fabrics like fleece, showed up as a major ocean pollutant.
“We believe the outdoor industry is likely one of those [industries that contribute to the microfiber issue], but we just don’t know the breadth,” said Beth Jenson, OIA’s director of corporate responsibility.
Patagonia spokesperson Tessa Byars said, “Patagonia is concerned about this issue and we’re taking concerted steps to figure out the impacts that our materials and products – at every step in their lifecycle – may have on the marine environment.”
2. Time To Take Action
Mark Browne, the researcher responsible for first bringing microfibers to public attention, said that the grace period is over. “We know that these are the most abundant forms of debris – that they are in the environment,” Brown said. He added that government and industry must be asked to explain “what they are going to be doing about it”.
The Amsterdam-based Plastic Soup Foundation, an ocean conservation project co-funded by the European Union, said better quality clothing or fabrics coated with an anti-shed treatment could help. But will companies comply?
Another solution could be with waterless washing machines. One of which is being developed by Colorado-based Tersus Solutions. Tersus, with funding from Patagonia, has developed a completely waterless washing machine in which textiles are washed in pressurized carbon dioxide. While others suggest a filter on home washing machines.
Recycling plastic to microfibers sounded like a good idea but now we are paying for the damage it caused. Plastic materials is never good for the environment. Now is probably the time to look for more environment friendly textiles to use for clothing. But like everything else, change will be difficult to implement.