Each time you wash your clothes in a washing machine, millions of microfibers are released into the water system and make their way into the oceans.
Microfibers are tiny strands of plastic that shed off synthetic fabrics like polyester, rayon and nylon. Scientists have discovered that they are one of the main causes of plastic pollution in the oceans, says Peter Ross, vice president of Ocean Wise in Vancouver, British Columbia.
“When we first started looking at microplastics in the ocean, we didn't have any idea of what we would find,” he says. “And when we looked under microscopes, we saw a variety of different shapes and sizes and a whole variety of colors, and some of these look like little particles or fragments and others looked like fibers.”
When they first started studying microplastics about six years ago, almost 80% of the particles Ross’ team studied in coastal British Columbia were fibrous, he says. It was scientists’ “first clue” that a source of ocean plastic pollution could be microfibers from textiles and clothing.
“There are estimates of anywhere from a few thousand fibers in a single load of laundry to as much as 10 or 12 million fibers per load of laundry,” Ross says. “So the numbers can quickly become rather staggering, and when we start putting all of the lines of evidence together, we are talking about a rather significant problem.”
On why microfibers are released into the water from washing machines
“We all do laundry and most of us have a dryer, and we regularly, routinely clean out the lint trap in our dryers. Unfortunately, the modern day washing machine typically does not have a similar lint trap to basically capture the lint that would be going out in the liquid waste from our washing machine. And so what this means is that all of the lint that we see in the dryer we would also be essentially losing that kind of lint in our washing machine. And that is a problem because that appears to be the conduit towards this discharge of a very large number of fibers into the environment.”
On the negative effects of microfibers in the ocean
“Our understanding of threats or impacts related to plastic really lies on a foundational history of understanding that charismatic creatures at the top of the food chain — large turtles, albatross — that these animals in the 1970s [and] 1980s were seen to be ready victims of our plastic waste, our debris, our garbage, our fishing nets, our bottles and straws and so forth. So our understanding of risk pertaining to plastic pollution [is] not new. The problem that I think we face right now is that as plastic breaks down physically, we find it increasingly present at smaller and smaller pieces. And our work and that of several other groups has documented tiny fragments, including fibers of plastic in the bellies of baby fish, zooplankton, shellfish, crabs and other species. So even though the evidence is a little bit elusive in terms of what the consequences are, there's every reason to suspect that plastics are creating the same kind of health risk or threat at the bottom of the food chain in small creatures as we see at the top of the food chain with large creatures.”
On the partnership between clothing company Patagonia and scientists
“Interestingly this is an example of an environmental problem where for the first time in my career as an ocean pollution expert, I've had industry desperate for answers and very open to embarking on the difficult conversation about their products and what it might mean for the ocean. So the journey has been an exciting one. It's been one based in foundational research and discovery, and it's been forward-looking insofar as Patagonia and a number of other enterprises are working in lockstep with our ocean science teams to better understand source, transport, fate and effects of microfibers. And I think the ultimate goal of our team is to effect positive change. The ultimate goal of our partners is to have better products that shed less and ultimately are not releasing these large amounts of fibers into the aquatic environment.”
On how to limit the number of microfibers that come from clothing
“Well, I think there are some nuances here that are really important. First of all, what has become abundantly clear with our research is that even within a single material type, if you pick polyester, some polyester textiles shed a great deal and others do not. So there's a question of material, but there's also question of design. For example, we know that polyester fleece sweaters can shed millions of fibers in a single load of laundry whereas some performance gear that is tightly woven, but it's equally made up of 100 percent polyester, might not shed much at all. So there are a lot of answers that we are deriving that will actually lead to informed decisions on the part of retailers, manufacturers, textile makers and some of these brands that we're working with. And that's helpful because instead of waving our hand and saying, 'Hey, all clothing is shedding fibers or all synthetic clothing is bad. Let's shift to natural clothing or natural fibers.' Instead, we're able to sharpen the conversation and speak with evidence to enable decisions that are much more responsible and perhaps more economically sustainable.
“The whole plastic pollution crisis that we find ourselves in today globally is a reflection of our modern day lifestyle. And there are so many different products that take advantage of the plastic economy that we can't simply demonize plastics. And it's far more effective to talk to individual consumers, to talk to employers and employees, to talk to government agencies, to talk to design firms that are dealing with material sciences, and step up, roll up our sleeves and say, 'Hey, what's our role in this? And can we do away with the low hanging fruit, the dumb ideas like microbeads in toothpaste? And can we make sure that the plastic that we use is valued as a product that has a long life expectancy and a high value?' There are many different opportunities to use plastic wisely whether it's in terms of food safety or beverage safety, or products that are reusable, recyclable and retain that value.
“So there is a lot to be done on the part of many people and groups and agencies, and for the individual consumer, first thing is to be informed. What are you buying? What's the label say? Is it likely to shed fibers? Another key question is going to be is it synthetic or is it natural? Natural fibers may have advantages, but they may also have a very heavy water use or heavy pesticide use, so there is no single silver bullet, but there are key activities that one as a consumer can embark upon — shopping wisely, washing with a little bit less soap. There are products out there that will retain lint in your washing machine. So lots of things that we can do, but I would put it to the consumer that you are not alone. There are many other groups and agencies that are embarked on very aggressive conversations regarding the plastic economy today.”
This segment aired on August 28, 2019.