The issue of plastic pollution in our environment has become a huge problem, and quickly. In the past few decades, our use of all types of plastics has skyrocketed — especially single-use disposables, which 40% of plastics are. And in that short time, plastics feel like they've become entrenched in our culture. I know know even though I try pretty hard, I still end up using a lot more than I want to. Even worse? Many of us are polluting with plastics despite our best intentions, just by washing our clothes.
Maybe you've heard about microplastic pollution. Every time we wash synthetic fabrics like polyester, which is just a yarn made from plastic, very small pieces break off and flow down the drain into our local waterways. No, water-treatment plants can't catch all the pieces. And the older the fabrics, the more fibers they shed in the wash, so those of us who keep our clothes for decades to save both money and resources, are actually the biggest offenders when it comes to microplastic shedding.
It doesn't matter what kind of polyester, nylon or combo-synthetic fabric you use, this microfiber shedding in the washing machine happens whether you buy a fleece or yoga pants made with virgin materials or made from recycled bottles.
Once these fibers get into the local river and beyond, "they act like sponges, sucking up other pollutants around them," explains the Story of Stuff project, which is raising awareness and seeking solutions to this issue. "They’re like little toxic bombs full of motor oil, pesticides, and industrial chemicals that end up in the bellies of fish and eventually in the bellies of us. It’s gross. It’s already estimated there are 1.4 million trillion in our oceans. That’s like 200 million microfibers for every person on the planet!"
So, what are the potential fixes to microplastic pollution?
For the most part, the key to addressing this issue is going to be up to textile manufacturers and the fashion companies that use their materials — which is discouraging, considering how long its taken companies to deal with the labor abuses and other environmental issues endemic to the fashion industry.
But that's who has to make the change, figuring out a way to make fabrics in such a way that they don't shed tiny fibers. We need to keep talking about this issue and get clothing companies to come up with solutions, with some caveats.
As the Story of Stuff explains, "There are some roads that we don’t want to go down; for example, the idea of a chemical coating to prevent microfiber release could cause more problems than it solves if those chemicals are also bad for the environment and human health." So let the companies you buy stuff from know what you think about this issue; when you're in the store trying on clothes, ask an associate what their plan is and how the company is tackling the issues — especially any outdoor company, since their business model should take into account keeping pollution out of the places we wear their clothes.
Another industry ally could be the companies that make washing machines. As Mary Jo DiLonardo reported here on MNN: "It would be really great if the washing machine companies would get on board and come up with a filter to trap these microfibers," Caitlin Wessel, regional coordinator for NOAA's Marine Debris Program, told the Associated Press.
But there are issues with that idea: "The problem is that there are already 89 million washing machines in the United States, and we don’t think it’s realistic to retrofit all of those machines. What’s more, we don’t know how or if this type of filtering would even work. At the end of the day, this problem is the responsibility of the clothing industry, not washing machine manufacturers," points out The Story of Stuff.
But you can also tackle this issue personally by making some simple changes in what you buy and your laundry routine:
Wash your clothes less frequently. Plenty of us throw our clothes into the laundry even when they're not really dirty, to avoid putting them away. This is a waste of water resources (and energy, if they're dried in the dryer). But it also contributes to microfiber pollution every time you wash. So if you wash less, fewer fibers get loose. So wear that fleece a few more times before tossing it into the wash, or wear a cotton undershirt beneath your polyester tops or dresses, so you can simply wash the undershirt and not the whole dress or blouse each time you wear them.
Be smart about how you wash and dry. When you clean your clothes, temperature and detergent matters. Choose cooler temperatures in the wash "When you do the laundry, you can reduce the impact by lowering the temperature," Laura Diaz Sanchez, a campaigner for NGO Plastic Soup Foundation, tells Phys.org. She says in water above 30 degrees C (86 degrees F), textiles break down more easily.
"Liquid detergent is better than powder, which has a scrubbing effect," she added. "Also, don't use a dryer."
Wear only natural fibers. Choosing only 100% natural-fiber clothing like wool, alpaca, cashmere, cotton, linen and silk is one way to avoid sending microplastics into the environment, since when these materials are washed, the fibers they lose are biodegradable. I've actually gone this route over the last few years; I haven't actively thrown away good clothing, but when it's come time to replace a jacket, I have gotten a boiled-wool sweater instead. I find natural fibers to be much more comfortable against my skin and less stinky too, when it comes to workout wear, meaning I need to wash them less.
Use a fiber-collecting device in your washing machine. There are a few out there, like the Guppyfriend, which collects microfibers inside a bag. You can then scoop them out and toss them in the trash, where at least they won't work their way into the water supply. There's also the Cora Ball, which might be easier to use, since it collects whatever microfibers loosen in a whole load of wash. Besides, you might not know exactly what clothes are even made from if labels wear off over time.
There's no simple solution to our plastics problem, whether we're talking microfibers or single-use plastics or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Dealing with any of it will require time, money, ingenuity, individual behavior change and — toughest of all — getting large companies to change their business models. Because right now, the capitalist structure that we all live within requires constant growth for every company, and the faster the growth, the better. So, the more plastic we use, the more stuff we consume, the better for financial bottom lines — even if it's worse for our health and the health of the planet.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was written in September 2018.