I was put in charge of a section demonstrating to the public how it is not only large pieces of plastic we have to worry about, but that tiny microplastics, especially fibres from our clothes pose an incredibly large threat to the marine wildlife too.
We set up some simple camera microscopes (shown below) and collected some tumble dryer lint. Even under a not-so-powerful microscope you can spot numerous microplastic fibres – typically of strong colours: black, red and blue. The microplastic fibres are easy to identify as they typically have straight lines and kinks compared to natural fibres that tend not to do this. An average wash can release over 700,000 microplastic fibres that have the potential to pollute the ocean. People were astonished to learn this and I was really happy that many people wanted to know more about the problem, our research and how to reduce their plastic pollution output.
Microplastics are plastic fragments defined as <1mm and are much more difficult to control than macroplastics, due to their size and the vast nature of the world’s oceans. Microplastic fibres are one of the most commonly found marine microplastic types, with an important source originating through sewage contaminated by fibres from washing clothes.
When your clothes are in the washing machine, abrasion results in the release of micro-fibres which are too tiny to be captured by the machine’s filter. Many of these fibres are made from synthetic polymers, including acrylic, polyester and nylon. As these fibres are not collected by the washing machine filter, they are carried into the waste water and sewage system. Again they are too small to be removed by treatment plants where other pollutants are captured and therefore escape into rivers, eventually making their way to the ocean. Synthetic fibres are found in all varieties of clothing.
A single garment can produce more than 1900 fibres per wash in a domestic washing machine. A study from Plymouth University tested how different fabrics release fibres and found that acrylic materials released nearly 730,000 fibres per wash, 5 times more than polyester-cotton blend fabric.
After an analysis of sediments from beaches around the UK, the most observed type of microplastic was in the form of fibres. These mircoplastics then enter the food web when animals ingest them, with microplastics being found in more than 1,200 species. Microplastics have been found within numerous organisms including phytoplankton, bivalves, crustaceans, fish, marine mammals and birds, with fibres often being the most common type of microplastic found.
Although microplastics do not always have negative repercussions, studies have shown decreases in fecundity, survival and reduction in feeding. Some animals, such as sea cucumbers, have even shown a preference to eating microplastic fibres. Microplastic fibres may be especially dangerous when ingested due to their tendency to tangle, making them difficult to egest.
Moreover, microplastics also have the potential to bioaccumulate through food webs. It was first shown by Murray and Cowie (2011) that microplastics can be transferred from prey to predator as lobsters fed fish seeded with polypropylene fibres were found to ingest but not excrete the microplastics. Microplastics, including synthetic fibres from your clothes, have the potential to reach our plates as microplastics have been found to be transferred up the food chain to mussels, crabs, fish and numerous other marine organisms.
What you can do
It’s disheartening to know that we are polluting water systems just by merely washing our closes. Yet there are a few simple things you can do to reduce fibre release:
- Make sure your wash loads are full to reduce the amount of tumbling
- Wear and wash clothes that are made of more natural fibres
- Wash at a lower temperature and slower spin
- Use less powders as this increases abrasion
- Use products in your washing machine that are made to capture fibres such as Guppyfriend and Cora Ball (haven’t used them myself so don’t know how effective)
Making these small changes will help reduce the amount of fibres released into the ocean. However, as a result of an ever-growing population we must put pressure on manufacturers to address the rate at which fibres are released from fabrics. As consumers we must understand the environmental impact of short-term clothing and fast fashion and act more responsibly.