Fighting plastic pollution is a lot like battling a multi-headed hydra. For every plastic bag ban victory, it seems that researchers discover two new ways humans are destroying the planet with materials we’ve created.
Consider microfiber pollution as the latest villain in our fight for a clean planet. Pollution is terrifying enough in and of itself, but this is destruction on a whole other level. Microfibers are so intertwined in the fabric of our lives that virtually all of us are part of the problem.
Becoming part of the solution isn’t a simple swap, either. It’s not as easy as choosing plastic bags or more sustainable goods. Companies can’t simply reformulate a product to get rid of the problem ingredient, like microbeads.
So, what is microfiber pollution, why is it so horrible, and is there anything we can do?
What Is Microfiber Pollution?
Microfibers come from synthetic fabrics used to make clothes, like polyester or nylon. Every time you wash a load of laundry, hundreds of thousands of these plastic strands break off your clothes. And as your clothes age, they shed more and more fibers.
You’ve probably never noticed all the fibers that break off your clothes because you can’t really see them. The largest microfibers are smaller than a strand of hair, and the tiniest are half the size of a red blood cell.
Because they’re so tiny, wastewater treatment plants can’t catch them all. They pass straight through back into the rivers, lakes, and, eventually, the ocean.
Once microfibers end up in rivers and lakes, they absorb all of the toxic chemicals that already pollute our water supply. Fish and other aquatic animals eat the plastics, and the chemicals make their way up the food chain to us.
Animals can’t digest these plastics, either, so the tiny fibers accumulate in their bodies. This means there’s less room in their stomachs for nutritious food, so animals can become malnourished and die.
Microfiber pollution runs rampant through all of our bodies of water. These microscopic strands weave together to create one huge issue — it’s the most common type of debris found in smaller bodies of water and the second largest in Lake Michigan.
Outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia commissioned a study on microfiber pollution to discover just how far-reaching this problem is. Researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara found that a single fleece jacket can shed up to 250,000 fibers in a single wash.
That number increases dramatically as the fabric ages and degrades: older jackets can shed twice as many fibers. Researchers estimated people wash 100,000 Patagonia jackets each year, which sheds enough plastic to make 7,000 grocery bags. That figure is a very conservative estimate from only one brand of fleece jackets — it says nothing of all the other synthetic fabrics we use to make clothing.
Consider that up to 60% of our clothing is made from plastic, and that number skyrockets to terrifying proportions.
Fast Facts About Microfiber Pollution
- The type of washing machine is directly related to the size and quantity of microfibers your clothes shed, the study found. Front-load machines shed more larger fibers, which are more likely to get caught in filters. Top-load washers cause up to 170% more shedding, and they create more of the microscopic fibers that escape filtration systems.
- At least 6.8 billion microfibers flow into New York City’s harbor every single day, according to the Rozalia Project.
- A study of fish markets in California found that 67% of all species tested had microfibers in them.
- Studies are just beginning to show the effects of microfibers on animals. Scientists don’t know much about how microfiber pollution affects humans.
What Can You Do To End Microfiber Pollution?
Fighting microfiber pollution seems like a problem without a solution. After all, almost everyone owns clothing made from synthetic materials, and we all have to wash our clothes eventually.
The good news is that organizations are working to develop products we can throw in the washing machine with our laundry to trap microfibers before they end up in our water supplies. Guppy Friend and Cora Ball are two of those upcoming inventions.
The Guppy Friend is a laundry bag specifically designed to work as a filter for microfibers. You put your clothes in the bag and throw it in the wash, and it prevents 99% of the plastic shards from escaping. You can’t purchase the Guppy Friend just yet, but Patagonia has pledged to carry the bag. Once it’s available, the company said it will sell the laundry bag at cost.
Inspired by a coral reef, the Cora Ball is a laundry ball made from recycled plastics. It floats through your washing machine, trapping microfibers as they shed. When you’re done with the wash, all you have to do is grab the fuzz and fibers and throw them in the trash.
The project is currently on Kickstarter, and backers have pledged more than $275,000 — far exceeding the $10,000 goal. Created by the Rozalia Project, the Cora Ball is expected to start shipping in July.
Another way we can cut down on microfiber pollution is to buy higher-quality clothes made from sustainable fabrics. Instead of buying fast fashion, support more sustainable brands that use higher-quality fabrics with a larger percentage of natural materials. The brand and quality of the clothing you buy makes a huge difference — the Patagonia/UCSB study found that a cheaper, generic brand fleece jacket shed 170% more fibers over its lifetime than a more expensive version.
Until clothing manufacturers stop using synthetic fabrics or find a way to stop microfibers from shedding, the best we can do is work diligently to keep the shards from reaching our water supply. Getting rid of microfiber pollution won’t be an easy battle, but it’s crucial for the health of our waters, our fish, and ourselves.