Microfibres: The Pollution Issue You Didn't Know Existed
With all the news of plastic pollution hitting the headlines recently, you may have made a few changes that have left you feeling pretty good about yourself. Maybe you’ve switched to a reuseable cup or bottle? Maybe you’ve banished cling film from your home and replaced it with a more eco-friendly alternative? So let’s dig a little deeper into the plastic pollution issue. Did you know that simply washing your clothes could be releasing harmful plastic microfibers into the environment?
Microfibres are extremely fine synthetic fibres usually made from polyester or polyamide (spandex, nylon, fleece), which have been popular in clothing production due to their ability to create very strong materials that remain soft to touch. Their lightweight, durable and water repellent qualities have made synthetic fibres a particularly good choice for manufacturers of athletic clothing. However, they are all made from plastic - and plastic microfibres are washed down the drain every time we wash these materials.
A team at Plymouth University found that acrylic fabric was the worst offender, releasing five times more synthetic particles per wash (730,000 fibres/wash) than polyester-cotton blend fabric (140,000). Shockingly, a research paper published in 2011 found that 85% of human-made debris found on shorelines around the world was made up of microfibres.
The danger of microfibres doesn’t make the news as often as other forms of plastic pollution because the damage it causes is hard to see with the naked eye. The picture below shows plankton eating microplastics under a microscope. The mainstream media likes the attention-grabbing, hard-hitting images of beaches scattered with plastic bottles and divers swimming through an ocean choked by plastic bags, but microfibres are doing just as much harm.
🐠 Seafood eaters are consuming 11,000 of them a year as research shows the fibres ricocheting through the food chain and rife in fish/shellfish. Due to their small size, microplastic fibres are readily ingested by aquatic life and, as they bioaccumulate through the food chain, they concentrate toxins in the bodies of larger animals. As we all know, plastic is a magnet for toxins so this could all be making us sick.
🐠 Plastic microfibres have been found in beer, honey, salt and water (The Guardian reported 72.2% of UK tap water was contaminated with plastic fibres in September 2017).
How to help
There are several things you can do to help avoid polluting water systems and our food chain with microfibres.
Firstly, when purchasing new items, look to buy clothes made from natural fibres such as cotton, linen, hemp, bamboo and wool. These will eventually break down in the natural environment, unlike the synthetic, plastic fibres in nylon, acrylic and polyester.
STOP with the fast fashion. From 2009-2013 the global consumption of synthetic clothes and textiles rose from 35.8 million to 55 million tonnes! You can find out about 5 Great British Ethical Clothing brands here.
If you already have a wardrobe full of clothes made from synthetic fibres, you can reduce the amount of microfibres being released into the water by purchasing a GuppyFriend. This special bag was designed to ‘catch’ the fibres during the wash cycle. As well as being good for the environment, it’s also said to increase the lifecycle of your synthetic clothing. Only wash your clothes when they are really dirty - not because you have worn them once.
Another way to help raise awareness, is to join campaigns applying pressure to tackle the issue, such as the Women’s Institute’s “End Plastic Soup” campaign. Campaigners are exploring solutions such as washing machine manufacturers designing machines with fibre-catching filters to stop the poison at source.
We always offer the same simple advice - each time you are about to purchase anything, ask yourself: is it made from plastic and is there a plastic-free alternative? The same goes for your fabrics. Keep raising awareness. Keep being mindful.
"If you don't like something, change it.” Maya Angelou