Synthetic microfibers have been found in the air, rivers, oceans, soil, drinking water, table salt, and many species of fish and shellfish. They make up 85% of human made debris on shorelines globally (ref). These microfibers come from a variety of sources, mostly from our clothes.
Many microfibers contain toxic chemicals such as dyes, pesticides and flame retardents. They also attract and concentrate more persistent pollutants and heavy metals onto their surface and can be up to a million times more contaminated than the surrounding seawater (ref).
They are now the biggest pollution problem facing our oceans because they are often mistaken for food by marine creatures both big and small, posing a serious threat to aquatic life.
How does it happen?
Each time clothes are washed up to hundreds of thousands of tiny fibers are shed into the washing water. These microfibers then travel to the local wastewater treatment plant, where many escape through the filters into rivers and the oceans.
About 60 per cent of all clothing is now made of synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon and acrylic, and the percentage is still rising. These synthetic materials are also in our carpets, curtains, pet bedding and household textiles.
Synthetic fabrics are man-made, produced entirely from chemicals mostly derived from petroleum. The microfibers shed by synthetic fabrics are actually tiny threads of plastic which do not biodegrade in the environment, so over time more and more of them are accumulating in the oceans.
Polyester fleece has been found to be amongst the worst for shedding fibers. Fleece jackets are wardrobe staples as they are warm, lightweight and comfortable. Most of us own at least one. They are now being produced from recycled bottles or ocean plastic but unfortunately it's a case of solving one problem to create another, as these eco-garments shed at least as many fibers, possibly more.
Fabrics made from natural fibers such as cotton, wool, silk and hemp also shed microfibers. The difference is that these fibers biodegrade in the natural environment, although they can still contribute to water pollution if they contain chemical dyes, pesticides and fabric treatments.
How serious is the problem?
This is not the same as the the much-publicized problem with microbeads, which have been relatively easy to eliminate from production by banning their use. Tackling microfibers is not so straightforward as these fibers cannot simply be eliminated from the supply chain - we all need clothes.
The scale of the problem is huge and increasing. The impact of plastic ingestion may already be affecting global fish populations and also the availability, nutritional value and safety of seafood.
Microfibers are directly absorbed from the water by filter feeders such as whales, some sharks, mussels, oysters and scallops. The tiny particles are also often mistaken for food by marine organisms such as small fish, crabs, lobsters, sea cucumbers and plankton. The plastic and toxic chemicals pass into the gut and tissues of these creatures.
Plankton species form the foundation of the marine food web and are a major ocean food source. Pollution is passed up through the food chain to top predators such as swordfish, shark and tuna. The process of biomagnification increases the concentration of toxic chemicals in the tissues of organisms at successively higher levels in the food chain.
Current research suggests that microplastics can affect normal feeding, digestion and reproduction in marine creatures (ref), but there is much more investigation to be done. It's not yet known if the fibers themselves or the chemicals they carry are harmful, or whether natural microfibers such as wool and cotton are less harmful.
There is an urgent need for more research to assess the potential future impact of increasing microplastics levels on the world’s oceans.
Should we be eating seafood?
These plastic fibers have been found in shellfish and fish destined for the dinner table. At present there is no evidence of negative health effects linked to eating microplastics from seafood and it's not yet known if there is a toxic threshold relevant to humans, but it's still early days. Scientific research is slow and it could take years to identify the full effects of these pollutants.
The official advice is that there is no reason to avoid eating seafood as it's very healthy and contains essential fatty acids. However, as a precautionary measure, you might want to limit your intake of seafood from those top predators, and from fish or invertebrates eaten whole such as whitebait, whole sardines, mussels and oysters.
It's also worth remembering that abandoned fishing nets alone make up about 46% (ref) of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and the rest is mostly other commercial fishing gear, including eel traps, oyster spacers, crates, baskets, and ropes. Whilst banning plastic straws and single use plastic is excellent news, if we’re going to be successful in reducing plastic pollution of the oceans maybe we need to boycott the commercial fishing industry and stop eating seafood altogether. This could help marine life, and protect our own health too.
What is the clothing industry doing about it?
This is a problem with no easy fix. The textiles industry have known about it for years but still haven't come up with a solution. They have unintentionally created the problem and must take the lead in finding a solution.
There are environmental problems throughout the textiles and fashion industry. Processing, creating and dyeing textiles is wreaking havoc on the environment. According to a World Bank report, textile production is responsible for up to one-fifth of industrial water pollution globally, releasing as many as 72 different toxic chemicals in waste waters.
Fast fashion is one of the dirtiest industries on the planet, the second largest polluter after the oil industry, and produces huge amounts of non-biodegradable landfill. CO2 emissions for polyester clothing are nearly three times higher than for cotton, while cotton production uses huge amounts of water and is the most chemically dependent crop. The industry as a whole needs to change radically.
Some textile companies have started to look at developing fabric coatings, natural dyes and new fabrics which are cleaner and more sustainable. They have been working on fabrics produced from a range of waste materials, including coffee grounds and fruit peelings, and from plant fibers. A lot of research is also going into producing cotton more sustainably.
A new polyester alternative, called GreeOblige, is made from the castor oil plant, which will grow on marginal land with few inputs. Another, Refibra, mixes Tencel, which is biodegradable and made from renewable FSC eucalyptus pulp, with recycled cotton waste.
An Italian company, Orange Fiber, is producing a silk-like cellulose yarn from a 100% citrus juice by-product, so-called 'pastazzo'. Italy produces over 700,000 tons of this waste every year, and until now there has been no sustainable disposal method.
An obvious idea would be to fit filters on all washing machines. However, the washing machine manufacturers say this could take years, millions of machines would need to be retrofitted, and the filters could affect the efficient working of the machines.
Another option is to fit more efficient filters at wastewater treatment facilities. This is a massive task which would probably have to be paid for by public funds. Disposal of the plastic-polluted waste sludge would be a problem.
There is a role for government in banning the sale of high-shedding fabrics and possibly introducing testing standards.
What can we do about it at home?
While we wait for the industry to get its act together, we can start to tackle this issue ourselves by making some simple changes in what we buy and in our laundry routines.
Stop using cheap fleeces and fleece blankets. These shed the most fibers of all. If you really must have a fleece buy the very best quality you can afford.
Wash your clothes less frequently. The less you wash your clothes, the fewer fibers are shed, so wear that fleece a few more times before putting it in the wash.
Buy clothes made from natural fibers. Wool, cotton, hemp, linen etc, preferably organic. When these fabrics are washed, the fibers they lose are biodegradable. Or buy clothes made from a synthetic-natural blend such as polyester-cotton which release 80% fewer fibers than those made from acrylic.
Use a front-loading washing machine. Studies have shown that about seven times as many fibers are shed in a top-load machine than in a front-load washer.
Use a fiber-collecting device in your washing machine. These are not yet available everywhere and are still a bit pricey.
In the UK you can buy a Guppyfriend, which is a laundry bag made from a 50 micron untreated nylon mesh. (Although made of plastic, the makers say the bag does not itself shed fibers)
It has been developed by the German non-profit campaign Stop! Micro Waste who are looking for solutions to the microfibers problem.
It's big enough to hold a couple of fleeces or the equivalent and allows soapy water to enter the bag but stops fibers from getting out. After the wash the fibers are visible against the white mesh and can be removed by hand and binned.
As an added bonus, they also good for trapping pet hair, so if you have a persian cat or a hairy dog a Guppyfriend might be just what you need for washing the pet bedding.
More about the Guppyfriend here.
Fit a washing machine discharge filter. At the time of writing these aren't yet available to buy in the UK, but this company in Canada will ship to anywhere in the world.
It would be good if these products were available at a much cheaper price or free, subsidised by the textile industry, although the only real long-term solution is the development of biodegradable, sustainably produced fabrics.
Speak up. Sign petitions like this one by The Story of Stuff Project, or this one from Friends of the Earth, to help pressure the textile and fashion industries and government into making changes. Tell family, friends and anyone who will listen about the problem! When industry and government believe that people either don't know or don't care, they tend not to deal with difficult problems.
See also our post Plastics are for ever
Ensia.com an excellent three-part in-depth feature by Mary Catherine O’Connor on the emerging threat of microfiber pollution. A comprehensive update on microfiber pollution produced by the outdoor brand Patagonia, who are investigating this issue. International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University of Plymouth, UK The Guardian article about the Guppy Friend laundry bag.