Put your hand up if you’ve heard of microplastics. Now keep it up if you know what they are. And keep it there is you know what fashion has to do with it. If you hand is still up I’m impressed!
It’s a topic I’ve seen some commentary around, but really not enough as it deserves. Today I’m going to share with you a bit about what microplastics are, where they come from, how the fashion industry is involved, if they are harmful and what we can do about it!
Microplastics are tiny particles of plastic that are less than 5 millimetres in diameter. They can be defined into two categories – primary and secondary. Primary microplastics come from the production process of goods such as cosmetics and textiles; while secondary microplastics are the result of the deterioration of plastic products such as water bottles, take away containers etc. Sadly these microplastics have reached the depths of the seabed, even in the Mariana Trench as well as locations such as the Arctic and the Italian Alps.
So how is the fashion industry involved? As I just mentioned, the textile and clothing industry is a significant contributor to this form of pollution. When garments that are made from synthetic materials (think polyester, acrylic and nylon) are washed, the friction and turbulence in the machine cause tiny microfibre-plastics to come loose and wash away in the machine. There is also of course the particles that are produced from textile manufacturing processes and garment production too. Surprisingly, our synthetic clothes also shed microplastics into the air as we wear them!
It is estimated that the microfibre-plastics washed off of synthetic clothing and textiles contributes to around 35% of the primary microplastics in the ocean – this is the highest contributor, followed by vehicle tyres at 28% and city dust at 24%.
The problem with these microplastics is that marine life consumes them, which we then in turn consume. But microplastics are not just a danger from the consumption of seafood, or other meat products, they have been found in drinking water and cannot be completed filtered out. They are even found to be a pollutant in the air! We are consuming them daily without even knowing.
While at this stage we don’t know exactly what effects this may have on our health, both long and short term; there is plenty of research happening and people are also working towards prevention and solutions. It is known that as microplastics are derived from petrochemicals they can be toxic carrying contaminants such as trace metals and may potentially be carcinogenic and mutagenic (damaging to DNA).
With all that scary information what can we do to limit our exposure, reduce our contribution and make a difference?
The first action you can take is to wash your clothes less, and with lower water volumes and less spin. If you reduce the friction, you reduce the amount of microfibres shed. And on this note, line dry rather than tumble dry.
Switching to only natural fibres may reduce the microfibre-plastics that come out of the wash, but do not be deceived, natural fibre textiles also shed microfibres that pollute the ocean and may pose similar health hazards to wildlife and humans.
But we do need clothes, and they do need to be washed so we cannot avoid the microfibres entirely – what we can do is install a microfibre filter into our washing machine. There are some great products out there that have been shown to reduce the number of microfibres in a wash as much as 87% (Lint LUV-R). And if you want a simpler solution you can try something like the Cora Ball that you can just throw in the wash although it isn’t as effective (26% – 31%) at filtering out microfibres as the filters are. You can also check out this filter by Planet Care. In saying this, any small action has an impact, if we all make a little difference that adds up to a lot!