We’ve all heard the scare stories – that by 2050 there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish; that each year eight million tonnes of plastic ends up in our oceans, killing a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals. Clearly, when it comes to ridding our environment of discarded plastic, something has got to give. A combination of increased media coverage, constant NGO and campaigner drum-banging, and a boosted public consciousness has forced the business community into action – from eliminating single-use plastics, and finding alternative materials, to improving recycling infrastructure and using their marketing clout to further raise awareness of the problem.
But while the tangible issue of plastic waste entering the natural environment is well understood, few are aware of the tiny, plastic microfibres that end up in our water systems every time we put synthetic clothing into our washing machines. Around 700,000 minuscule pieces of plastic end up in our water courses with every wash according to a study by Plymouth University. Acrylic garments are the worst offenders, shedding fives times as many microfibres per wash than polyester-cotton materials.
Because of their size, water filters in our sewer networks are not able to trap the particles, so they end up in our lakes, rivers and seas where marine animals eat them. In turn, these microfibres end up back in the human food chain.
Such micro-plastics have been detected in fish, crustaceans and bivalve molluscs from the English Channel, North Sea, Baltic Sea, Mediterranean Sea, Portugal, Indonesia, California and the North Pacific Central Gyre. While most micro-plastics are found in the stomach of the animals, which tend to be removed before human consumption, the plastic can migrate to other parts of the fish.
A number of product designers have stepped forward with possible ways to stop the microfibres in their tracks. Patagonia has a laundry bag, the Guppyfriend, whose soft surface results in fewer fibre losses during a wash. The Cora Ball bounces around the washing machine to trap microfibres in appendages that resemble coral. And the Lint LUV-R is a special filter that can be attached to the discharge hose of a washing machine.
A recent bill put before California’s State legislature demands clothing manufacturers to label their garments as needing to be hand-washed if it is made up of more than 50% polyester to stop microfibre shedding.
However, in order for people to buy such innovations or make the right decisions (following label instructions), they first need to understand the problem. And with public awareness of the issue still low, that isn’t going to happen any time soon.
So, it will fall on textile manufacturers, fashion brands and washing-machine makers to come up with the answers.
Right now, however, it is unclear where this collective should prioritise efforts. Retrofitting washing machines with appropriate microfibre-grabbing filters – of which there are 89 million in the US alone – is unrealistic.
Meanwhile, the risk posed by microfibres in our water is not merely connected to the fibres’ ability to biodegrade. There are also risks attached to the dyeing and finishing chemicals that are used to prevent shedding, making natural fibres just as much of a problem as synthetic fibres.
Similarly, despite widespread belief that the use of recycled polyester is a solution, recycled plastic clothing can often shed more than clothing made from first-use polyester.
Many brands sensibly await the outcome of further research into the problem of microfibres before making any concrete innovation moves. Understanding the scale of the problem and where the biggest impacts are being felt (whether at the consumption or production end of the chain) will be crucial in any response.