Wash. Wear. Repeat. Right?
Maybe not so much. A recent study found that plastic microfibers in clothing made from synthetic materials are polluting the ocean when they’re washed and dried. Just like microbeads, these fibers are so tiny that they can slip through sewage treatment plants and escape into our waters, where they threaten marine eocsystems and can work their way up the food chain—and onto our plates.
One researcher found microfibers comprised 90% of microplastic samples in a 2014 Atlantic Ocean study. (Microplastics are pieces of plastic that are smaller than five millimeters.) Another study, commissioned by Patagonia, found that:
one synthetic fleece jacket released as many as 250,000 plastic microfibers when machine washed.
The truth is: All materials shed fibers. But unlike wool and cotton, plastic microfibers from synthetic materials don't biodegrade. In addition, many microfibers are treated with flame retardants like PCBs, which are endocrine disruptors.
Recently, 5 Gyres convened a group of experts to discuss the problem, covering environmental impacts, leakage points, textile innovation, filtration, and wastewater treatment. They included Catie Tobin, Microplastics Researcher at Clean Ocean Action; Marcus Eriksen, Co-founder and Director of Research at The 5 Gyres Institute; Beth Jensen, Senior Director of Sustainable Business Innovation at the Outdoor Industry Association; Sophie Mather, Material Futurist at biov8tion; Rachel Millar, co-founder of the Rozalia Project; Alexander Nolte and Oliver Spies, co-founders of Guppy Friend; Adam R. Saslow, Senior Facilitator CSRA and Senior Consultant to US EPA’s Trash Free Waters program; and Wendy Barrott, Manager Wastewater at the Great Lakes Water Authority. Watch it here:
So what is plastic fashion? It’s simple. Take a look at your label. Here’s what you want to avoid:
- Materials made from recycled plastic waste, like PET (polyethylene terephthalate)
Yes, we understand that in certain cases—such as swimwear—synthetic fabrics are pretty much unavoidable. Rinse more, wash less—and let’s keep searching for solutions. Meanwhile, you can pledge to go #plasticfree by wearing natural fiber materials as much as possible, such as (preferably organic) wool and cotton.
Here are three more #plasticfree fashion actions you can take today:
- Avoid acrylic garments, which are particularly harmful and can release as much as 700,000 microfibers during the lifecycle of one item of clothing.
- If you do own synthetic fabrics, wash them less.
- If you’re buying a new washing machine, choose a front loader—the Patagonia study found it releases less microfibers.
- If you already own a washing machine, consider installing a microfiber filter. It can’t catch everything, but it can help.
- Stay tuned to research: Designers are looking at ways to trap plastic microfibers with new filtration systems. We'll continue to push for a solution!
Bruce, N., Hartline, N., Karba, S., Ruff, B., Sonar, S. Microfiber Pollution and The Apparel Industry. 2016
Rochman, C., Tahir, A., Williams, S., Baxa, D. Lam, R., Miller, J., Teh, F., Wrorilangi, S., Teh, S. Anthropogenic Debirs in Seafood: Plastic Debris and Fibers from Textiles in Fish and Bivalves Sold for Human Consumption. 2015.
Talvitie, J., Laurila, J. Synthetic Microfibers and Particles at a Municipal Waste Water Treament Plant. 2014