Here I am thinking that I’m conscientious about the environment, and meanwhile I’m wearing plastic.
In fact, my outfit today consists of the following breakdown:
- Hoodie: 55% cotton, 45% polyester.
- t-shirt: 93% cotton, 7% polyester
- Jeans: 100% cotton (phew!)
- Socks: I hate wearing socks
Polyester is a form of polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Why does that matter? Because occasionally I wash my clothes. And when I do, and when it contains PET, teeny little microfibers come off and get flushed out with the wastewater. These microfibers are too small to all get caught by water treatment plants, and so they eventually end up in our lakes and oceans. This is where organisms like plankton and fish gobble them up, thinking they are food. And then in turn, we eat the fish. Who knows what havoc microplastics are wreaking on our bodies, given the amount that we ingest.
Like I needed another reason to not sleep at night.
What are microfibers?
It’s likely disconcerting to many folks, the fact that many of our clothes are shedding harmful microplastics into the water table with every load of laundry we do. But that’s actually what’s happening.
Microfibers are microscopic pieces of fabric that make up clothing, or other textiles. Microfibers that are harmful to the environment include synthetics like acrylic and polyester. These are bad for the environment because they shed millions of teeny threads of plastic when they get run through a washing machine.
Because most washing machines do not have effective fabric filters, all of this shed plastic just goes down the drain. And from there, it just keeps on going.
How serious is this problem?
It’s unclear just how much plastic there is in our oceans, lakes and rivers. But if you think about how many washing machines there are, and how much clothing is shedding millions of microfibers per load, we have a scale of plastic pollution that is hard to fathom.
Couple that with the fact that microplastics are turning up in what we humans consume; seafood—even our water—and we have a significant crisis on our hands.
The infuriating part is that there is pressure (and a hell of a lot of money) in keeping plastic clothing on the market. I’d like to think that there is a better reason, but for the most part it’s pretty simple. Plastic clothing is cheaper to manufacture, and cheaper for consumers, because of all the industry support. So, until we shift our consumption habits, microplastics will continue to be a threat to our environment and our general health.
I’ve now started checking the tags on my clothes before buying them. I mean, firstly, I determine whether I really need new clothes. Most of the time, I don’t. But now, my purchases are driven by what the clothes are made of, rather than the function or style of the garment.
What can we do about it?
There’s a few things we can do. First, we can stop purchasing clothes that contain synthetic fibres like polyester and acrylic. I know, cotton has its share of nasty skeletons in the closet as well, but if we’re solely focusing on the issue of microplastics, then cotton is a better option. Hemp is even better than that.
Check the labels, just like you check the nutritional facts on food packages. If it contains any plastic derivative, don’t buy it. Try to make a concerted effort to shop for clothing at places where they are clear about their sustainable initiatives.
Also, keep these considerations in mind when buying clothes for your children. Kids’ clothes probably get washed more than adults, because, well, kids. Make them aware of the decisions you make about what they wear; that they aren’t driven by style, rather practicality and environmental conscientiousness.
Ways to stop microfiber pollution
We can also purchase products to lessen the amount of microplastic we’re dumping into our sewers. There are filters designed to capture microplastics and other fibres before they make it to the wastewater.
There are bags you can put your synthetics in that capture the microfibers.
There’s also a washing machine “ball” that collects microplastics. These products are good options for people (like us) who already own clothing made from synthetics, and occasionally wash them.
By the way, we have no affiliation with any of these companies, but we may want to review one of their products for Origyn at some point. Hint, hint.
Where’s the Hope?
On a larger scale, there are companies hard at work to try and clean up the mess, where it’s hitting earth the hardest. Here are some links to read about some of these initiatives. I’m always interested in hearing about new ones too, so if you know of any, please let us know!
Alfa Laval membrane bioreactor (MBR) pilot plant
Alternatives to synthetic fibres
More Links about microplastics
Story of stuff video:
Some of the heaviest lifting comes from the decisions we make about what clothes to purchase.
The same as we opt to bring our bags back to the supermarket, we can make an active decision to stop buying polyester all together, or at least if we decide to wear and wash synthetic clothing, we can potentially invest in a product that can minimize the damage being done.
Small gestures like this will help the problem, as we continue to determine ways to extract the existing microplastics from our waters.
First step: Spread the word!