Your Shirt Could Be Polluting The Ocean: The Problem With Microfibers And What You Can Do About It
Written by Konstantina Antoniadou.
Whether you are a sustainability veteran or a newbie, chances are that you are already very aware of the eco-friendly renaissance in the sartorial sphere right now. Despite words like “longevity” and “circularity” becoming the buzziest buzzwords among green-minded connoisseurs, there is one thing that is circulating non-stop: microfiber pollution. From shorelines and the seafloor to remote areas in US National Parks, and even in the Alps and Arctic snow, a tsunami of tiny plastic fibers is actively damaging the ecosystem.
Where Is Microfiber Found?
So how could one simple, comfy, cozy, and stylish t-shirt be one of the main reasons for marine life contamination? The answer is painfully simple. The main source of primary microplastics is synthetic clothing. Synthetic materials like polyester, acrylic, and nylon are the top textile choice for 60% of the global apparel industry. But affordability comes with a huge environmental price tag.
These manufactured materials, which are by-products of petroleum and are non-biodegradable, now account for 35% of microplastics in the ocean. So aside from emitting nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more dangerous to the ozone layer than carbon dioxide during production, synthetics also require much water, which is flushed back into the waterways after usage.
From rivers and agricultural soils to freshwater animals and many consumer products, these nano-specs of plastic have found their way into the ecosystem where they can remain for hundreds of years, eventually ending up in the air we breathe and the food we eat. The biggest offender who leads this microfiber pollution? The good-old washing machine.
How Does Microfiber Affect The Environment?
One piece of clothing can release a staggering 700,000 fibers in a single wash. So every time we do laundry, 9 million microfibers are released into wastewater, end up in the ocean, and then swallowed by marine life, which is how they are introduced to the food chain. That’s not all!
Microplastics are also constantly released into the air as well. To put this simply, every year, we breathe at least 13,000 to 68,000 plastic microfibers from our clothing, carpets, curtains, and other textiles—yes, that is A LOT! In fact, it is anticipated that, to date, 1.5 million trillion microfibers are present in the ocean, and tiny plastic fibers have also been found in our drinking water.
So what fabrics should be on our eco radar to avoid putting an extra toll on the environment?
How To Avoid Microplastics In Clothing: Safest Fabrics
Organic cotton, hemp, linen, and regenerated fabrics like Tencel are the most sustainable fabric that not only helps us avoid microfiber pollution but also require way less natural resources during production (it’s a win-win).
Microfibers are created from oil-based synthetic textiles while cotton, so the right choice is pretty evident. However, that doesn’t mean that you have to get rid of all your synthetic clothing! Conscious consumerism is the key to living a more sustainable lifestyle. And sometimes, this means keeping your polluting fabrics—let us explain.
What Can You Do To Reduce Microfiber Pollution?
Even if you have the budget to swap all your existing clothing rotation with eco-friendly alternatives, sustainable textiles still require water, energy, and natural resources. That’s why the most eco-conscious fashion is always the one you already own. All you have to do is be creative.
1) Use microfiber-catching laundry balls/bags.
Opt for an easy-to-use laundry ball that catches microfibers that shed off your clothing in the washing machine. Microfiber-catching laundry balls work just like ocean-filtering corals. Simply throw one ball each time you turn on your washing machine, and voila! Bags are also very effective in catching microfibers.
Fill up half of the bag with your synthetics and remove released microfibers found inside it once the circle is complete!
2) Use external microfiber filters.
There is another filter that can help address microfiber shedding in the laundry. External microfiber filters must be emptied every two to 10 loads (depending on the filter and what you wash) to revoke microfiber buildup, but they are super helpful! Many studies support that both in-drum (balls and bags) and external microfiber filters reduce microfiber pollution in the wastewater system to varying extents.
3) Do less laundry.
Another great way to reduce microplastics in washing machines is to do laundry less often while reducing the volume of water you use in proportion to fabric—because heavy water use is linked to more shedding. So, no full loads!
4) Use fast and quick cycles.
It’s proven that washing clothes at 15C for 30 minutes led to a 30 percent reduction in the number of microfibres released compared to a typical 85-minute cycle at 40C. Researchers suggest that if every household in Europe did laundry this way, we could save 3,800 tonnes of microplastics from being released a year. Cooler and faster cycles seem the best way to achieve that!
5) Use a front-loading washer if possible.
A 2016 study by the University of California, Santa Barbara, showed that top-load washing machines produced significantly more microfibers than front-loading machines.
6) Line-dry your clothes.
Instead of using your dryer, try to line-dry your clothes when possible. This method also enhances freshness and helps remove strong odors while saving energy.
7) Choose organic fabrics.
And last but not least, when it’s time to upgrade some of your clothing basics, opt for sustainable fabrics that do not cause microfiber pollution at all! Bamboo, organic cotton, wool, and linen are all great candidates.
Reducing Microplastic Pollution, One Small Win At A Time
Don’t beat yourself up! Yes, microfiber pollution is one of the most prominent environmental issues, but it hasn’t always been the center of discussions, and thus, it might have taken you a bit longer to learn about the impacts of synthetic textiles. All that matters is that we are now trying our best to live more sustainably through education and research. All small accomplishments are important, and we should all be proud of our always-improving sustainable lifestyle.