What Are Microplastics? A Solutions Guide

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Microplastics among sand and glass pieces in Rhine River sediment
Microplastics among sand and glass pieces in Rhine River sediment. Photo: Martin Wagner.

Sometimes tiny things cause big problems. Deadly viruses are one example. Miniscule synthetic particles that don’t decompose, kill marine life, and make people sick is another. One of the differences between these two examples is that the average deadly virus is not manmade. Microplastics (also known as synthetic microfibers) on the other hand, are.

We know what they are, we know where they came from, we’re understanding more and more about why they’re a problem, and we know what we have to do to stop them. This guide will provide details on microplastics, the impacts they’re having on the environment, and what we can all do to address the problem.

 

What are microplastics?

In this post, I’m going to use the term “microplastics” interchangeably with “microfibers,” but I should mention that when I’m talking about microfibers, it’s really synthetic microfibers. These are tiny plastic fibers that can be so small that you can’t even see them. They may be five millimeters long and one one-thousandth of a millimeter (or one micrometer) wide.

 

Where do microfibers come from?

Synthetic fleece jacket

The rise of fast fashion has made it easy and affordable for us to own more articles of clothing than any generation in history. Today, synthetic materials, like polyester, nylon, spandex, rayon, and acrylic, are used in everything from yoga pants to t-shirts, fleece jackets, stretchy jeans, and more. According to Greenpeace, about 60 percent of our clothing is made with synthetic materials that are based on petrochemicals. Essentially, these synthetic materials are plastics.

When all clothing, whether it’s made with natural or synthetic fibers, is washed in a washing machine, it sheds fibers. Just as you see lint in the lint screen in your dryer, a lot of fabric fibers come off your clothing during the wash cycle.

These fibers are tiny, but there are a lot of them. One study found that one garment can shed 700,000 fibers every time it’s washed. If you consider how many items of clothing the global population of the developed world is washing ever day in washing machines, a staggering amount of microfibers are released.

A study in Environmental Science and Technology, as reported in Vox, found that the average person releases 793 pounds of synthetic microfibers from their clothing every year. These microfibers don’t just vanish into thin air. They have to go somewhere.

 

The Problem with Synthetic Microfibers

Synthetic materials, even miniscule pieces of them, don’t decompose as easily in the environment as natural fibers, such as linen, hemp, and cotton, do.

This video from The Story of Stuff Project does an excellent job of explaining what microfibers are and why they’re a problem:

When we wash our clothes, microfibers that come off of our clothing get drained away with the wastewater from the washing machine. Then, they make their way to water treatment plants. However, because the fibers are so small, many pass through the treatment plant’s filters. Wastewater treatment plants may catch from 65-92 percent of the microfibers, says Patagonia, but those that are not caught by the filters get dumped with the wastewater into rivers or the ocean.

Fibers that are 100 percent natural, such as hemp or linen, will decompose within a few months; but synthetic microfibers, or microplastics, will take hundreds of years to breakdown.

Even though synthetic microfibers from clothing are tiny, collectively, they represent about 20 percent of the plastic pollution in the ocean, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Other sources of plastic pollution in the ocean consist of discarded fishing nets, plastic bottles and caps, plastic bags, and other items, which also take centuries to decompose.

Marine microplastic sticking to organic fibers
Marine microplastic sticking to organic fibers from Gulf of Finland water. Photo: MakeevaIN.

Synthetic microfibers attract more toxins.

Once in the ocean, the microfibers act like little sponges that suck up other toxins in the environment, including pesticides, motor oil, and other industrial chemicals. The Story of Stuff describes these microfiber sponges as “little toxic bombs” that marine animals then consume (and people who eat marine animals will consume as well.)

Microplastics are toxic to wildlife.

According to journalist Mary Catherine O’Connor in Ensia, lab studies have shown that when small aquatic organisms, like plankton, consume microplastics, it can impact their ability to feed and reproduce.

Plankton are a critical food source for aquatic organisms and an integral part of the marine food chain. Other studies done in the lab found that when zooplankton were given food that was laced with microplastics, they had decreased nutrition and poorer health than zooplankton that were not fed any microplastics.

This video, presented by Brilliant.org via Vox, shows what it looks like when plankton ingest microplastics:

In addition to plankton, marine animals of all sizes consume these microfibers because we have flooded their natural habitats with our pollution. According to Ensia, in another study, 73 percent of the fish caught at mid-ocean depths in the Northwest Atlantic had microplastics in their stomachs. Furthermore, marine animals found in the lowest depths of the ocean, including the Mariana Trench, had synthetic microfibers in them.

Impacts of Microfibers on Human Health

While more studies need to be done on how synthetic microfibers are impacting human health, there is no doubt that we are consuming more of them than ever before.

According to Ensia, scientists analyzed 159 samples of tap water from 14 different countries. They also studied 12 brands of beer that were brewed with Laurentian Great Lakes water, as well as 12 brands of commercial sea salt. The scientists found that 81 percent of the tap water samples, as well as the beer and salt samples, contained microfibers and most were synthetic.

Chemicals from Plastic Consumption

In my post about why plastic water bottles are bad, I wrote about how plastics (including microplastics) contain and leach the industrial chemicals BPA and phthalates, both of which are known to interfere with the body’s hormones, namely testosterone and estrogen. These chemicals have also been linked to brain problems, like depression, as well as cancer, diabetes, and obesity. So, there is a direct correlation between our consumption of plastics, even if from plastic food containers, and serious health problems.

Weight Gain

Both BPA and phthalates are known “obesogens.” These are toxins that not only disrupt your hormones, but also impact your healthy intestinal bacteria. These imbalances can lead to distorted hunger cravings, a slower metabolism, and an increase in fat cells and fat storage – all of which can lead to weight gain. In addition, long term exposure to even low doses of BPA can cause a rise of insulin production, and too much insulin is a risk factor for obesity. Furthermore, obesogens have been shown to increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and high cholesterol.

Still another recent study found that a person living today will be about 10 percent heavier than one living 20-30 years ago, despite eating the same amount of calories and exercising for the same amount of time. Two of the culprits, the study surmised, is the amount of chemicals we are exposed to today and the resulting changes in our microbiomes, or intestinal bacteria. I am willing to bet that the amount of plastic we’re consuming today plays a role here.

 

Solutions for Microfiber Pollution

There’s no doubt that synthetic microfiber pollution is a global problem that needs to be addressed. And how we go about solving it will require multiple approaches from a number of sectors in our society, including government, businesses and industry, science and NGOs, as well as us, the end users of plastics and synthetic materials.

Industrial Solutions

Better Materials

Patagonia, a forerunning in the environmentally-conscious products space, is calling for other clothing companies to use better materials that are more ecologically safe. A cheap fleece jacket will shed far more microfibers than a high-quality one that’s been built to last. But fleece jackets are just a part of the problem. We need more materials manufacturers and clothing designers to educate themselves and be leaders in environmental health as it relates to their respective parts of the supply chain.

Better Washing Machines

Appliance product developers need to design better washing machines that have filters that capture more microfibers, so they don’t end up in wastewater. Consumers need to let manufacturers know that this feature matters to us. Corporations always bow to the will of consumers if it will impact their bottom line.

Upgrades to Wastewater Treatment Facilities

Patagonia also talks about how we need to upgrade our wastewater treatment facilities, so they’re better at preventing microfibers from getting into our waterways and oceans.

While this could be a massive undertaking, requiring the coordination of taxpayers and local agencies, environmental health is in everyone’s best interests.

 

What You Can Do as an Individual to Stop Microfiber and Microplastic Pollution

Glitter
Unfortunately, glitter, yet another microplastic, is toxic to marine life. Photo: Knoppen.

While the problem of plastic pollution in our environment can at times seems completely overwhelming, I’m a firm believer that in the developed world, consumers hold all of the power, even if we don’t always realize it. In so many ways, the future of the world hinges on what we choose to buy or not buy. Corporations will bend over backwards to give us what we want, and it’s up to us to say we will not buy certain products because they are not acceptable.

None of us is the perfect consumer. Sometimes cheap and easy wins the day because we all have busy lives. But when cheap and easy is killing life on our beautiful planet and making people sick, it’s time to just say no.

Here are some things we can do to reduce microfiber pollution:

1. Buy vintage and used clothing and shoes.

This will help expand the pre-owned clothing and accessories market, while slowing down production of wasteful, fast fashion, which is a huge global polluter.

2. Wear natural fibers.

Clothing, shoes, accessories, and linens that are made with natural fibers, such as hemp and organic cotton, will shed natural microfibers that breakdown more easily in the environment and are non-toxic to marine life.

3. Wash full loads.

When you wash clothing, wash in full loads, as there’s less friction between the clothing items, so they’ll shed fewer fibers, says the Plastic Pollution Coalition.

4. Use an eco-friendly, liquid laundry detergent.

Liquid detergent is less abrasive than laundry powder, which means fewer microfibers are released.

5. Use a microfiber trapping wash bag, like Guppy Friend.

Shown to capture 99 percent of released microfibers, Guppy Friend is simply a bag that you put your clothes in before putting them into the washer. Then, when your wash is done, you put the captured microfibers into the trash. You can purchase Guppy Friend at Patagonia.

Here’s a video showing Guppy Friend in action:

6. Add a microfiber filter, such as Filtrol 160 or Lint LUV-R, to your washing machine.

These types of filters have been proven to capture 80-90 percent of the microfibers released from your washing machine.

7. Get the Cora Ball.

As the name implies, Cora Balls are round plastic balls comprised of multiple little circles that you toss in with your wash. The ball collects 20-30 percent of the microfibers released in the wash.

8. Use a frontload washer.

According to Patagonia, washing clothes in top-loading washing machines causes them to shed seven times as many microfibers as clothes washed in a front-load washing machine.

9. Support organizations that are working to end ocean pollution.

Nonprofits that monitor ocean pollution, support science, and campaign to educate the public about the impacts of ocean pollution are on the front lines of this challenge. Donating and sharing their campaigns on social media are two of the easiest things you can do to help end microfiber pollution.

 

Here are some organizations that are fighting ocean plastic pollution:

Ocean plastic pollution
Photo: 5 Gyres.

5 Gyres

Plastic Pollution Coalition

Surfrider Foundation

Plastic Change

Clear Blue Sea

Oceana

Agalita

10. Sign this petition from The Story of Stuff.

This is another easy thing you can do to help. This petition will show the largest clothing brands that as consumers we demand materials and clothing that will eliminate microfiber pollution.

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