How Your Laundry Causes Ocean Pollution: 1 million trillion plastic microfibres
The world has too much plastic. This much we know. It’s in our food, our water, our very own bodies… and the problem is only accelerating.
By 2048 the ocean will be full of plastic and fish are predicted to be extinct. Instead of snorkelling with tropical marine life, we’ll be swimming in a warm plastic soup. At present, there are already 4 billion pieces of plastic per square kilometre of ocean, or something like 1.5 million trillion pieces. It’s pretty grim.
There are a lot of contributors to plastic pollution with fishing nets comprising over 40% of plastic in the ocean. I found an easy solution to that, as sea animals are easily excluded from a healthy diet. Switching to a wholefoods plantbased diet will lower your plastic pollution by almost half.
Yet there is another more hidden cause that until recently the world was entirely unaware of: Clothing plastic microfibres.
Today, the world buys 100 billion new pieces of clothing a year and 60% of that clothing contains synthetic fibres (based on the ICAC World Apparel Fibre Consumption Survey). Polyester refers to a group of petrochemical fabrics such as spandex, nylon, fleece, taffeta, rayon, etc. Sometimes the synthetic fibre will appear as a poly blend on the label. These materials are made from fossil fuels obtained through oil drilling or gas fracking. This means that not only is the means of producing these clothes invariably unsustainable, but they release pieces of petrochemical plastic in the washing machine and can never biodegrade.
A Patagonia funded study found that with each wash, one of their polyester jackets sheds as many as 250,000 plastic fibres that are mostly invisible to the naked eye. These synthetic fibres from clothing are smaller than 5mm and make up 70% of the million trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean because they’re so small, 40% make it through council water treatment plants. So if each wash of a fleece jacket releases 250,000 plastic fibres, 100,000 of those will make it into the ocean unimpeded.
And that’s just one jacket. An entire washing load could release 700,000. In context, this means a town of 100,000 people are sending the equivalent of 15,000 plastic bags down the drain every day through their washing machines. The amount each item of clothing releases depends on its ratio of polyester blend, the design, water temperature, the detergent, the size of the load, whether it’s a front or top loading machine, and more.
These microplastics are so small even plankton mistakenly feed on them, so they continue up the food chain through mulloscs, small fish, big fish, sharks, dolphins, whales and unfortunately, a lot of humans. Each human that consumes sea animals for food consumes thousands of pieces of plastic per year (here’s why I’m not using the 11,000 figure) that have accumulated in the animals’ flesh.
And the plastic doesn’t come alone, as they’re prone to absorbing toxins from water they’re exposed to, before even considering the toxic dyes and other chemicals used to process the materials in the first place. Research has also found that after ingestion, the conditions of the gut of animals are the ideal conditions to release the toxins from the plastics. In oysters, these microplastics have been linked to poor reproduction and offspring performance. Thanks to biomagnification, the concentration of toxic chemicals in these plastic pieces are also higher the further up the food chain these plastics move so humans can be absorbing pretty high doses.
While we wouldn’t intentionally chow down on petrochemicals because we understand that would shorten our lifespan, we’re willingly doing just that through our seafood. And it’s not just in seafood, it’s in our tap water, our salt and our beer. These are carcinogenic materials and while “the dose makes the poison”, absolutely nobody on Earth is monitoring our dosage.
Your lifestyle choices may limit your contribution to plastic in the oceans, but your lifestyle choices cannot protect you from the risks of plastic contamination. It’s probably in that drink you’re sipping on right now.
So what do we do to lower our clothing’s pollution? Here’s what we know so far.
Use a front-loading washing machine because top-loading machines release 7x the fibres
Wash on cold water and run shorter loads
Use liquid soap over powder because it’s less abrasive
Washing detergent should be organic and biodegradable to avoid a whole other kind of ocean pollution, read about my preferred products here
Wash synthetic items less frequently, hand wash or spot clean if you can
Use a microfibre laundry bag or Cora Ball when washing any synthetics in a machine
Pledge to stop buying new plastic fabrics in 2019
If you can’t afford natural fibres new, try secondhand
If you need to buy polyester for items like swimwear or biking gear, buy recycled polyester or secondhand pieces to reduce your support for the extraction of raw materials from the ground, and follow the preventative measures to limit microfibre shedding
Post your support for ending plastic pollution on social media, let your friends know, and be outspoken so brands know we want them to make the switch
Clothing microfibres aren’t the only source of plastic pollution in the oceans, but they’re a big one. And while the production of polyester fabric is currently entirely unsupervised, tackling this pollution relies entirely on our fashion choices as individuals.
Here’s the exact microfibre filter bag from Biome I’m using.