Last year, I wrote about the occurrence of plastic microbeads in everything from cleansers to toothpaste. The discovery of microbead pollution galvanized groups across the country. As a result, some manufacturers voluntarily switched to biodegradable materials and a law at the federal level will phase out the use of plastic microbeads in personal care products in the next few years. But the presence of plastics in our waterways is not so easily solved. In addition to plastic litter, new research has shown that our laundry is also producing plastic pollution.
Scientists investigating plastic pollution have found that it takes many forms – plastic microbeads, bits of plastic that form when things like plastic bags and bottles degrade, and very small plastic fibers. Further investigation found higher concentrations of these fibers near the outfall of sewage treatment plants, supporting suspicions that synthetic fabrics might be the source.
The outdoor clothing company Patagonia teamed up with the University of California to see how the company’s clothing fared in the wash. They found that during laundering, more than 250,000 synthetic fibers were shed by a single fleece jacket. Older jackets, as you might suspect, released more fibers than new ones. In many cases, small fibers like these are not captured by sewage treatment plants and pass through to our surface waters. Other researchers have shown that toxic chemicals in the water can bind to plastic fibers, and that these fibers are eaten by the plankton and fish.
This kind of pollution is not one that has an easy fix. Synthetic fiber clothing represents a big portion of the market and, in the case of fleece, is one way to reuse recycled plastics. Patagonia and other companies are exploring how they might design clothing that sheds less. One group in the Netherlands – life-mermaids.eu – has found that the type of detergent, water temperature and water hardness make a difference – cold wash and fabric softener are best. Sewage treatment facilities are also wrestling with this tricky problem.
The more we look, the more we learn how our actions are affecting the environment. Luckily, humans are great problem solvers when they put their minds to it. While clothing manufacturers and industry tackle the source of the problem, you can help reduce microfiber pollution:
- Use the washing guidelines recommended by the Mermaid Foundation
- Buy natural fiber products whenever possible
- Launder less frequently.
- Use biodegradable soaps and softeners