Microplastic and Our Clothes
Microplastics are one of the big buzzwords surrounding sustainability at the moment, but what are they? And why do we need to worry about them?
Microplastics are small pieces of plastic, smaller than 5mm, and they are making their way into our oceans and waterways around the world, and our food! The main sources being tyres, textiles and plastic pellets used in manufacturing.
They have been found in waterway covering the globe from Antarctica to the Yangtze River in China and the beaches of Spain. More than 1000 small pieces of plastic per litre where discovered in a sample taken from the River Tame near Manchester, making it the most contaminated place to be tested to date worldwide.
Your clothes are made of plastic
Did you know clothes can be made of plastic? Those fibre you always see on your product labels, ‘acrylic’, ‘polyester’ and ‘nylon’, they are all made of plastic. It’s estimated that around 64% of textiles produced globally and made from these synthetic fibres. Produced from petrochemicals, there are a lot of environmental issues which arise at the point of manufacture, including their non-renewable nature, and water and energy usage.
However, in terms of microplastics, the issue comes when you wash your clothes. Research shows that up to 17 million particles can be released from just one load of washing, with this adding up to 35% of the microplastics entering our oceans every year. Once shed into the water, they pass through the washing machines filters, due to their size, through water treatment plants and out into the natural world.
What happens when they reach our Oceans
It is at this point concerns arise. Although we don’t yet understand the full extent of the impact of microplastics both ecologically and on human health there are early indications that the impacts could be significant.
The fibres often hold detergents from washing and chemicals from treatments such as fireproofing which may happen during the production of garments, which increases once they enter oceans and rivers, as they can absorb harmful chemicals present such as pesticides and now banned chemicals such as DDT.
They then enter our food chain and plankton consume them. From small fish, to the blue whale, many sea creatures are dependant on plankton, and as such are ingesting microplastics. However, we don’t yet understand the impact that this is going to have on our ecosystems and biodiversity.
The concern, is the extent to which this is passing into the human food chain when we ingest fish. Data has shown that as many as 90 pieces of microplastic can be in a consumer grade mussel, and it has also been found in canned fish.
Water is another big concern. Microplastics have been found in consumer drinking water around the world. Bottled water isn’t any better, with between 2 and 44 pieces being found in each bottle. Other sources in the food chain include honey and beer.
Julian Kirby, Friend of the Earth plastics campaigner highlighted this concern
“Microplastic pollution may be largely invisible, but it’s having a potentially devastating effect on our natural environment – especially as it can be mistaken for food by some our smallest ocean creatures, which are then eaten by bigger creatures as part of the food chain.”
Microplastics and Bacteria
Microplastics can also provide the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. A recent study carried out in Singapore, discovered some more worrying findings. Across 275 samples collected from local beaches, they found 400 different types of bacteria present. These included bugs which can cause gastroenteritis and wound infections in humans, as well as those linked to bleaching coral.
What you can do to help
Now the best thing you can do is to is to avoid buying clothes and textiles which are produced using these plastic fibre, however that’s not always a realistic option. For many of us we already have a wardrobe full of clothes, and a home full of items which are made from these fibres, and it makes no sense to throw these away to buy new. But there are some steps which you can take to reduce the number of micro fibres being shed from these items.
Washing your clothes less - Considering one item can release upto 700,000 microplastics fibres, everytime you wash it, its easy to see how this is a pretty powerful way of reducing your personal impact.
Using a mesh washing bag - Simply put your items in one of these bags before putting it in the machine, and it can help to catch some of the bigger microplastic fibres, preventing them making it into our waterways.
Install a washing machine filter - Similar to mesh washing bags they can help to catch the larger fibres.
Don’t tumble dry - Tumble drying causes items to shed even more microplastics. So why not air dry your clothes instead?