In this #TipTuesday, we give you two tips on how you can do your part to ensure more microplastics don’t end up in our oceans and food chain.
Majority of consumers are aware that a lot of our plastic products end up in the ocean (eg: plastic water bottles, six pack beer holders, etc.). However, you might not know that our synthetic clothing also contributes to the microplastics problem. Microplastics are tiny fibres (less than 5 millimeters in length), with diameters measured in micrometers (one-thousandth of a millimeter) that eventually reach the ocean. Most of the plastic pollution in our waters aren’t from whole products like straws or plastic water bottles. Rather, our oceans are littered with tiny broken down pieces of plastic.
If you have clothing made out of polyester, nylon, acrylic, or other synthetic fibres, all of these are a form of plastic. These fibres are commonly used because it’s cheap, versatile and provides strength and breathability in athleisure, and warmth in winter clothes. However, whenever we wash these clothes, it’s estimated that a single load of laundry could release hundreds of thousands of fibres into our water supply.
To put this into perspective, let’s talk about drying your clothes. When you dry your clothes, lint collects in your dryer. That lint is tiny bits of thread from your clothing that have come off and were caught by the mesh screen. Similarly, synthetic fibres come off when you wash them as well. However, they’re so small that there’s no filter inside the washing machines to catch them. This means that microplastics, or tiny plastic fibres pass through to our sewage treatment plants, which often don’t have fine enough filters to catch them. Then, the treated wastewater (which contains our microplastics) is then dumped into river or seas, which flow into our oceans.
Napper and Thompson did a study in 2016 that examined the release of synthetic microplastic plastic fibres from domestic washing machines. They used a Whirlpool washing machine and included a special filter to collect tiny fibres. The team tested three types of fabric: a polyester-cotton blend t-shirt, a polyester hoodie, and an acrylic sweater. After a few washes (all of these garments shed more when they are brand new), they found that the acrylic fabric shed the most, followed by polyester, and then the poly-cotton blend. Specifically for an average 6kg wash, the team found that acrylic released an estimated 728,789 fibres, polyester released 496,030 fibres, and the poly-cotton blend released 137,951 fibres.
As you can imagine, having billions of teeny-tiny plastic particles lying around in the environment and our water supply can’t be good. Particularly, microplastics are a huge problem because it’s accumulating in our food chain. When fish and other marine life see these tiny fibres, they think it’s food so they ingest it. A study done in 2018 found that 73% of fish in the Northwest Atlantic had microplastic in their stomachs. And as you know, a lot of us eat seafood, so we end up consuming these plastic shreds as well. While the research aimed at examining the impacts of ingesting plastics for humans is in the early days, you can imagine that it isn’t the best for us.
What you can do:
With all your existing synthetic clothing, you can get a Guppyfriend washing bag to store these clothes when you put it in the washing machine. This bag will capture all the microfibres from your washing, reduces fibre shedding, and protect your clothes. Over time as you use the Guppyfriend bag more and more, these fibres will accumulate. As these fibres collect, you can dispose of them into your household trash. While it’s not ideal to have microplastics rotting in the landfill, it’s better than having it infiltrate our waters and food supply. For more details on these washing bags and how they work, visit Guppyfriend’s site.
Now that you know that synthetic materials release harmful microplastics, buy less of these garments! In The Recloseted Handbook: Your Sustainable Fashion Guide (our tell-all guide on sustainable fashion that’s releasing next month), we will overview synthetic fabrics a bit more. Generally, avoid buying these fabrics unless you absolutely have to get them.