Here’s what you can do about it.
Plastic polluting our oceans. By now most people are aware that plastic disposable products are polluting our oceans. In fact, these single use plastic products account for 8 million tons of plastic waste that sit at the bottom of the ocean.
But what many people aren’t as aware of are microplastics. These are microscopic pieces of plastic less than 5 millimeters (less than the width of a number 2 pencil). In October 2020, scientists in Australia published a study estimating that 9.25 to 15.86 million tons of microplastics can be found on the ocean floor.
The culprit of most of it? Synthetic fibers - most commonly polyester - which make up a whopping 35 percent of microplastic pollution. That’s about 2.2 million tons of microfibers entering the ocean every year.
How is that possible?
One simple word - LAUNDRY. For every load of synthetic laundry, approximately 750,000 microplastics are washed into the ocean. Not to mention the toxin-filled laundry detergent that washes away with it.
Together it is a dirty and polluting concoction that is contributing to climate change, killing our ocean-life, and potentially harming our health.
Where Do Microplastics Come From
We just talked about synthetic clothing. But how do these petroleum-based fibers come off of the garments?
Each garment is made up of filaments that are twisted together. During washing, with the effects of water, friction and abrasion, and detergents, those filaments shed. Depending on the tightness of the weave, different types of fabric shed more than others. A tightly woven fabric (one that feels flat and smooth) sheds less than a loosely woven fabric (one that feels fluffy or fuzzy).
Everything from the quality of the raw materials to the quality of the construction is a contributing factor. One of the worst culprits? Synthetic fleece, commonly sold at even the most sustainable outdoor clothing stores.
Why You Should Care
Chances are if you’re reading this, you care about the environment. But microplastics aren’t just a concern for our oceans and climate change. In fact, they are winding up in our food supply, along with the toxins and chemicals they are made from, and negatively impacting our health.
Microplastics are even showing up in bottled water, tap water, beer, and sea salt. The impact on our health? Scientists are still studying the health impacts of ingesting plastic—including on the immune system and in childhood development.
Unfortunately there are no standards for microplastics from the American National Standards Institute, ANSI, or NSF International—two bodies that oversee product claim requirements. And this means things like water filters are not certified for microplastic filtration.)
And even with all of the awareness happening around microplastics, the global production of synthetic textiles is expected to triple by 2050. And while this is a concerning prediction, we can at least be empowered with taking our own health and contribution to the pollution problem into our own hands.
Eliminating Microplastics - The Solutions
- Wear Natural Fiber Clothing
Not only does natural fiber clothing such as merino wool NOT contain microplastics, but in most cases it naturally has properties that make it comfortable to wear and last longer.
Merino wool - a fiber that we at Nui have been championing since we were founded in 2004 - is naturally temperature-regulating, breathable, moisture-wicking, antimicrobial, and allergen-free. And when carefully sourced as we do, it is a premium quality fiber that has greater durability than a synthetic and is certified to be free from toxic chemicals.
Plus, wool needs far LESS washing than most other fibers.
It is also important to note that who you buy from is just as important as what you buy. Sam Athey, an environmental chemist and PhD candidate at the University of Toronto Rochman Lab, explains that even textiles labeled “100% natural” can contain up to 30% chemical additive by weight, often applied for stain resistance, water repellency, fire retardancy, and antimicrobial properties. Unless a garment says it is completely untreated, “because of issues with transparency in the textile industry, you don’t always know what chemicals your clothing contains.”
- Do Less Laundry
It may not be realistic to replace your entire wardrobe with natural fiber clothing. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything about the microplastic problem.
Another solution to the microplastic pollution problem is to do less laundry and do full loads. Washing clothes less creates fewer opportunities for the fibers to be shed. Instead of throwing a garment in the laundry hamper after one wear, air it out after wearing and spot clean to reduce smells and trips through the wash.
Washing full loads causes less friction between clothes, reducing the number of microfibers shed. A 2020 study done by researchers at the Newcastle Innovation Center and Northumbria University estimated that going from small to large loads about halved the number of microfibers released.
Nui Organics are members of GINETEX - the international association of textile care labeling. GINETEX provide easy to follow recommendations around how to reduce climate impact, effort and money caring for fashion the clever way. Check them out HERE.
- Use a Laundry Filter
This solution is more of an option to try, rather than a quantifiable solution to reducing microplastics in your washing machine. While numerous tests have been performed and many washer filter brands claim to significantly reduce microplastic shedding, there is no standardization for metrics for those studies, and researchers have noted that the effectiveness of microfiber filtration devices can be potentially impacted by temperature, use of detergent or conditioner, type of washing machine, type of garments washed and their polymer type.
It also should be noted that microfibers are not recyclable. You cannot “throw microfibers away.” So once the filter is full, when you clean the filter, you have to throw the microfibers into the trash where they will end up in landfills.
Eliminating Microfibers for Good
We live in a world of plastics. So while it may never be possible to completely eliminate the production of plastics and products that shed microplastics, we can do our part to reduce the amount of them in our life.
One easy way is to commit to only buying natural fiber clothing. As we previously mentioned, this does not mean you have to replace your entire wardrobe. But when you do the math, committing to making your future clothing purchases natural fiber pieces, you will be on your way to creating a wardrobe that not only looks better, but saves you money in the long run.
Other ways include using a water filtration device for your drinking water, doing less laundry, eliminating single use plastics, and being a smart consumer.
Change starts with each one of us believing that we can make a difference. It may be seemingly small, but one drop in the ocean and create a ripple effect of positive change.