In less than a century, the versatility and affordability of plastic has found applications just about everywhere we look today. Unfortunately, it is also everywhere we would rather not find it.
What is microplastic and microfiber pollution and where does it come from?
Microplastic pollution refers to tiny fragments of plastic that find their way into natural environments and organisms, with undesirable consequences. They can be formed unintentionally, such as when plastic bottles or synthetic apparel begin to wear and shed particles, or when such materials are not recycled and end up in landfills or in nature. When talking about plastic pollution, fragments with a diameter smaller than 0.01mm are called microfibers. Microfibers can come from many items that are subjected to wear, including in industries, homes, and automotive textiles. These fibers can also technically be either natural or synthetic.
Research shows that the bulk of all plastic in the world’s oceans comes from less affluent countries where the rivers are often used as garbage dumps. But richer countries, too, contribute significant amounts of plastic pollution, with nearly 13,000 tons of microfibers entering the marine environment annually from Europe alone.
Research also shows that a major source of persistent microfibers in nature is synthetic clothing (polyester, nylon, rayon and more), whereby long-lasting and sometimes toxic microfibers can be shed from clothing during production, consumer use or at its end-of-life. To a large extent, this problem arises because microplastics and microfibers end up in soil – and later waterways and the sea – when sewage sludge is redistributed to agriculture.
What are the impacts of microplastic pollution?
Here, it is important to differentiate between different plastics and different additives, whereby not all microplastics are equally harmful to health. The real problem is instead the substances that are added to the plastic to give it certain characteristics (such as plastic softeners), which later leach out of the plastic and harm the environment and its inhabitants. We already know that additives such as bisphenol can disrupt human and animal hormone production, as do certain types of phthalates. While more research on the long-term impacts of this type of pollution is needed, microplastic and microfiber pollution is already found across all continents and oceans of the world and in many of its food chains.
What is the industry doing to tackle these problems?
The scale of the microfiber pollution crisis alone has led to more than one apparel brand’s commitment to phase out plastic synthetics in favor of natural materials, or at least to do so until a suitable solution is found. Others, meanwhile still consider plastic as the ultimate closed-loop, low impact material, and are optimistic that these unfortunate emissions into the natural environment can soon be solved. While much media attention has been busy blaming one source or another, much has been premature as little in fact has been known about this problem.
This seems to be changing. Actors within the textiles industry, such as The Microfiber Consortium (see page 10), have been quantifying, assessing and creating test methodologies to determine which types of fabrics are most problematic, and how these sources of microfiber shedding can be reduced with its latest Roadmap.
What can we do to reduce microplastic pollution?
- Wash synthetic garments less often—air them out instead.
- When you do wash, use low temperatures, full loads, and hang dry afterwards.
- Dispose of lint in the garbage bin, not down the drain.
- Laundry bags like Guppy Friend, Lint LuvR, PlanetCare filter or Cora Ball can help prevent microplastics getting into the rinse water.
- Avoid cheaply made “fast fashion” garments.
- Otherwise, reduce use of plastic in your daily life and recycle the plastic you do use.
Illustrations: Nadia Nörbom