Take a look in your closet. What do you see? Clothes you wear? Clothes you never wear? You’re probably not thinking that’s a lot of plastic. Plastic —polyester, acrylic, nylon, and other synthetic fibers—is about 60% of the material that makes up our clothes.
And it turns out those synthetic fabrics we’ve been comfortably wearing and using these last few decades are adding tons of microplastic fibers to the environment.
These tiny plastic particles—shed when we wear and launder our clothes, blankets, and household items—are showing up in drinking water (including the bottled kind), food, air, and even beer. They’re even being discovered in the Great Lakes and their tributaries.
Microfibers from synthetic fabrics are too small for filters to fully capture at wastewater treatment facilities. Many of these tiny fibers end up in treated wastewater that’s discharged into rivers and lakes, where fish and aquatic creatures consume or “ventilate” them through their gills.
Like sponges, these particles—which often contain chemicals from their initial manufacture—absorb added toxins in these aquatic environments. Along with birds and other wildlife, we ingest the contaminated microfibers when we eat the fish or drink the water.
Natural materials like cotton and linen shed fibers too, but unlike synthetics, they decompose in the environment relatively quickly. Here are some things you can do to reduce microfiber pollution.
- Wash less. Most microfibers are shed from apparel and other items during laundering. You can reduce microfiber amounts by washing items less often. You’ll also save energy and conserve water in the process!
- Hand wash or use a front-loading clothes washer. Top-loading washers, especially ones with an agitator, cause more friction between items, resulting in more and smaller microfibers down the drain. Front-loading washers and gentle hand washing create less friction, so fewer microfibers.
- Choose apparel and household items like sheets and towels made from non-synthetic, organically produced materials. Look for clothing made from organic cotton, linen, wool, hemp, and other natural materials. Buying organic and purchasing materials that don’t require a lot of chemicals, energy, and other inputs to produce lessens the generation of microfibers and other pollutants.
- Go for high-quality and durable. Some studies have shown that cheaply made synthetic materials produce more microfibers when worn and washed than do higher-quality products.
- Use microfiber-reducing laundry products. A few products on the market are designed to filter microfibers during or immediately following the wash cycle. Some work better than others, and in most cases they leave behind a microfiber waste material that has to be disposed. Some of these products are discussed here: Products Take On Microfiber Pollution, a Laundry Room at a Time.
- Encourage textile and clothing manufacturers to develop non-polluting alternatives. Let clothing and textile companies know you care about this issue and want non-polluting alternatives to current synthetics. Learn about the work of a growing list of organizations and companies that are trying to address the issue and develop better options.
More on microfibers – Our clothes are contaminating our planet with tiny plastic threads. Ensia, June 2018, part 1 of a 3-part series. https://ensia.com/features/microfibers/