You may remember that in December of 2015, President Obama signed the “Microbeads Free Waters Act,” which banned the use of plastic microbeads that were commonly used as exfoliants in body washes, face scrubs, and other personal care products. We must use that example as a lesson because we are certainly not finished polluting the oceans and environment with plastic — far from it.
You would be shocked at the amounts of plastic pollution that originated from a seemingly innocent act: washing our faces. Similar to the ozone depletion that was caused by the use of aerosol hairspray — which was caught in time and reversed — we must continue to avoid causing these issues in the first place, and as far as existing issues, we must be brave and unified enough to do something about it now. Before it is too late.
Winning on the issue of microbeads was a large undertaking that required a national coalition of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) with a unified and strategic plan. The next target that needs attending to is a somewhat surprising one to most people — microfibers that come from washing synthetic clothing in washing machines.
You have likely heard of the oceanic gyres that turn big plastics into smaller bits — this is what is polluting our oceans with plastic and making it worse by breaking down plastic into smaller and more difficult-to-clean-up pieces (but never breaking them down fully).
Washing machines and your synthetic yoga pants and fleece sweaters? The same thing — except even more efficiently. When you wash synthetic clothing made from materials such as polyester, tiny particles of plastic called microfibers are washed down the drain along with the detergent and dirt. Microfiber pollution is actually one of the largest sources of primary microplastic pollution in the world.The IUNC (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) recently released a report that proved washing such clothing was responsible for 33 percent of primary microplastic releases into our environment — that’s 33 percent! Compared to the microbeads that were banned by President Obama, which were banned for their 2 percent contribution to watershed microplastic pollution, it is clear to see we have a huge problem.
Business and the Bottom Line
This microfiber pollution presents an existential threat to clothing brands and their bottom lines, especially outdoor apparel brands. The go-to fabric of choice for active lifestyle brands has been polyester and other synthetic fabrics. Due to their performance attributes, these synthetic materials are used in yoga pants, windbreakers, outdoor jackets, pants, gloves, and the list goes on.
Already, 60 percent of all clothing on earth is made of polyester and the instances in activewear is even higher. It has become the new normal. Unfortunately, the microfibers are being shed in massive amounts and is persistently polluting our waters and soil with plastic that will take so long to break down, human likely will not be alive on earth by then.
The increasing demand for synthetic fibers is making the risk of this issue becoming even more serious — especially since there are no plans to do anything about it. So, let’s put things into context so you can have an idea of the scale.
It is estimated that over 1.4 million trillion fibers are in the ocean, having polluted our waters due to our own reliance on these fibers (data by George Leonard, chief scientist for the Ocean Conservatory).
So, consider that U.S. data shows more than 103 million washing machines exist in the U.S. doing an average of eight to ten loads per week. Each load can release anywhere from 1,900 fibers per load to as many as 250,000 per fleece jacket — per wash.
Obviously, it is doubtful that there would ever be scientific studies showing that animals eating our plastic pollutants would be a good thing — and we already know that there are huge ramifications from our wasteful and irresponsible use of fibers
Effects on Sea Life
We do know that plankton, clams, and mussels eat these fibers and this has caused gut impaction and other very serious digestive tract problems. One in four fish that are procured from fish markets in California has evidence of microfiber ingestion.
We also know that microfibers attract and concentrate (up to a million times greater toxicity) other chemical pollutant that are present in water — and after the ingestion, these toxins can leach from the plastic and into the organism’s living tissues. As if it couldn’t get worse, some clothing is treated with dangerous chemicals that will desorb water over time as well.
The ultimate human health connection implications are known as of yet from eating sea life that is eating our plastic — but we do know that because larger organisms eat smaller ones, that pollutants end up magnifying up the food chain.
Is Anyone Doing Anything About It?
There are some forward-thinking brands that have acknowledged that microfiber pollution is a real issue and apparel company Patagonia has actually commissioned a study to look at their products’ contributions to the issue.
However, few brands have made any real progress on mitigating their products’ impact on the environment. In fact, it has been six years since the first study has demonstrated how big of an issue microfiber pollution has become, and yet no clothing company has abandoned synthetic fibers in their products. Quite the opposite, in fact. There has been an increase in the use of synthetic textiles — especially polyester.
Activewear and other types of brands love their polyester and synthetics for performance clothing — they repel water, stretch without getting stretched out permanently, and wick away sweat. They are also cheap to produce but polyester, for example, is twice as carbon-intensive than cotton is — the next most carbon-intensive material to make.
What Consumers Can Do
Since it is unlikely that companies are going to do anything anytime soon and it is not practical to force the retrofitting of over 100 million washing machines in the nation — here are some proposed solutions that you as a consumer can do to lessen the damage.
- Wash your synthetic clothes less often
- Place a filter inside / outside of your washing machine (this could stop your machine from draining properly since the fibers are so fine, but perhaps some improvements can be made)
- Use a filter bag like Guppy Friend when washing your synthetics
- Stop using synthetic fabrics
- Be more mindful about what you buy and how you wash your existing synthetics
There are so many potential solutions that clothing brands can make that would stop putting the pollution problem on consumers and start solving the problem where it is originating, but so far brands just aren’t doing it.
Bamboo, for example, as many of the same properties that clothing brands love into their performance synthetics, and can be spun into environmentally friendly yoga pants and other clothing. In fact, this has already been done and some yoga-pant manufacturers are already selling them, so we know it works.
There is also the idea of having clothing manufacturers coat their textiles with a non-toxic and non-harmful treatment to avoid microfiber shedding in the first place.
In the end, it is clear that even companies that are genuinely concerned at the issue of microplastics polluting our waters are still in a head scratching phase rather than being on a true mission to solve the problem.
For now, consumers can help by being more mindful about what they buy, and washing the synthetic clothings they have now more carefully and less often. There are a ton of clothing options out there that are more natural alternatives, less harmful (or completely safe), more organic, and won’t cost you more or sacrifice performance quality. You just have to search for it — Google before you shop — and give other types of clothing a try. If enough people become mindful of this issue, the trends in clothing can change and clothing manufacturers will have to listen to consumer demands to change their ways.