What are Microplastics and What Can I Do About Them?

Maury Argento

Posted on April 29 2019

When we think of plastic pollution and the ocean we tend to think big — garbage patches that could span American states, beaches strewn with water bottles, and whales felled by plastic bags — but plastic microfibers make up one of the biggest sources of plastic pollution.

Microfibers are more or less exactly what they sound like: tiny petroleum-based synthetic fibers that fall off clothing and textiles during production, washing, or even just regular use. Many of these fibers are too small to be filtered out by conventional sewage treatment and enter the environment where they degrade incredibly slowly — on a geological rather than a biological timescale. They linger in the air, the soil, and in waterways, building up in the lungs and digestive systems of animals that encounter them. All the while these tiny plastics are sloughing off harmful chemicals such as Bisphenol A (BPA), which has been linked to a number of illnesses including cancer.

The ocean is a huge sink for these tiny threads, where they make up a large part of the pollutant group known as microplastics. Microplastics have been found in the bodies of a vast array of marine life — one study indicated that microplastics could be found in the bodies of as many as 73% of fish in the northwest Atlantic. They’ve reached every level of the ocean — from top predators to filter feeders, sea birds to deep sea dwellers -- and have made their way back into our homes. A global study of tap water recently revealed that as much as 83% of tap water around the world contains detectable levels of microplastics. The USA scored the highest of any nation surveyed, with 93% of its tap water estimated to be affected.

We’re only just starting to grasp the full scale of microfiber pollution and its implications for human and environmental health. Marine animals who’ve consumed higher concentrations of microplastics have been shown to have poorer nutrition, slower growth, and be more susceptibility to a range of overall health problems. While there are still few studies on microfibers as a distinct component of microplastics (which also include products like microbeads and plastic fragments), there is evidence to suggest that their fibrous structure could pose a greater risk to animals than other types of plastic waste. As one scientist put it, on a microscopic level these fibers appear as though they’re “weaving themselves into the gastrointestinal tract” of the fish she studied — not just filling but entangling and deforming the digestive systems of these animals.

The fashion industry is a huge contributor to this problem. A U.S. government report in 2015 showed that over half of the 19.43 billion square-meters of apparel shipped into the United States was composed primarily of plastic synthetic fibers. An estimated one million tons of microfibers from these synthetic textiles enters our wastewater around the world through the wash each year. A single wash of five polyester fleece jackets releases an average of 1.7 mgs of microfibers into the water system, and that number only increases as the clothing ages and degrades. The clothes you wear — and more significantly the clothes you wash — may seem like a drop in the bucket but as we’ve learned, little things build up.

Combating the planet's problem with plastics and microfibers will take change at a vast systemic level, as well as local problem solving and cooperation. While individual choices in isolation won’t be enough to fix things, they can be an important part of creating momentum and changing the scale at which we think about our actions. Taking on a problem the scale of microfibers in your everyday life can be daunting but a good place to start is by paying attention to the whole lifecycle of your clothes – from what they’re made of to how you care for and ultimately dispose of them. Microfibers have accumulated little by little to become one of the biggest problems facing our planet; getting rid of them is going to require us to thinking on a large scale and but also making personal lifestyle choices.

 

Filosano is excited to partner with Guppyfriend and bring you the first microplastic wash bag that is scientifically engineered to capture microplastics in your personal laundry without contributing more into the water system.

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