Microfibers Everywhere

Just when we’re feeling good about getting plastic microbeads out of toothpaste and body-wash, we discover another source of ubiquitous, tiny plastic pollution: our synthetic clothing. Strands of fibers shed off our clothes in the washing machine, travel through wastewater treatment plants and eventually, end up in the ocean.

Plastic microbeads in toothpaste were unnecessary ingredients that were easy to regulate out of existence. Take out the plastic, and we still have toothpaste. The microfiber problem is going to be tougher to solve because fibers are integral to the fabric our clothes are made of.

How do microfibers go from washing machine to the ocean? Wastewater treatment plants capture most of the microfibers that enter. These microfibers end up in sludge that is often applied to land. With rain, runoff and time, the land-applied microfibers end up in our waters. Microfibers that pass through wastewater treatment plants unimpeded end up in waters more directly. Whatever the route, microfibers reach the ocean, and they are everywhere. We have very little information on the fate of these plastic fibers or the animals that eat them. Research on microfiber pollution is in its infancy. There’s still much data to collect, studies to conduct and answers to be found.

The outdoor clothing company, Patagonia, depends on synthetic fabrics for stretch, sweat-wicking and warmth when wet. It has funded some of the earliest research on microfiber pollution and is looking at the life cycle of synthetic fabrics to figure out where improvements can be made. They are testing different fabrics to find out which shed less and which may need to be re-engineered. They have found that fleece jackets washed in front load washers shed fewer fibers than those washed in top load washers. They are also experimenting with filters on washing machines that catch the fibers in wash water.

There are two new products coming out soon to catch fibers in washing machines. Guppy Friend is a zippered mesh bag to place synthetic apparel in before it goes into the washing machine. The bag holds the microfibers inside. After washing, the captured fiber is removed and thrown away like lint from a dryer. Rozalia Project, an organization dedicated to cleaning and protecting oceans, is designing a ball that catches microfibers. This is tossed in the washing machine where it snags microfibers. After each load it is cleaned, and the microfibers are thrown away.

We could wear cotton and wool. These biodegrade while synthetics like nylon, acrylic, polyester and rayon don’t. Neither cotton or wool are without problems. Growing cotton requires a lot of water, pesticides and fertilizer. Wool-producing sheep are notoriously gassy animals and produce large quantities of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. And though the cotton and wool in clothes breaks down, the dyes and additives may not.

Microfiber experts agree that washing clothes less often is a good idea. Wait until they’re dirty. You’ll save time, water, and your clothes will last longer. Washing causes wear and tear. When your jacket gets thin, those missing fibers may be in the ocean.

To explore microfiber pollution further, listen to this recent webinar hosted by the EPA Trash Free Waters Program, The 5 Gyres Institute and Clean Ocean Action.

We don’t need to wait until the microfiber puzzle has been solved. We can get plastic off the beach now, and keep it out of the ocean. Plastic in the ocean, fibers included, doesn’t go away, but it does get smaller. All fibers will eventually become microfibers. When you go to the beach, grab a bag from the BlueTube, pick up plastic and throw it away. Add your extra clean, used plastic bags to the BlueTube so they can be reused by others to keep the beach clean and plastic out of the ocean.