So far for Earth Month, we’ve tackled subjects such as our recycling crisis, how to sort our trash, and the different Rs of sustainability. One big polluter that has come to light in recent years is plastic microfibers. I’ve been wanting to tackle this subject for a while now, but I’ve been hesitant because there’s still so much that we don’t know and there are a lot of articles that make this topic very much black and white. I want to remind you, the reader, that sustainable problems are not black and white. And if you ever meet anyone that claims that they have all the answers, run the other way.
What are Plastic microfibers and their danger?
There is a study published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin in 2017 stating that the Hudson River alone releases 300 million microfibers a day. Even though these microscopic particles are hard to see for the naked eye, 300 million is A DAY sums up to 109,500,000,000 plastic microfibers A YEAR just out of the Hudson. That’s crazy. Even then, the Marine Debris Program cannot quantify how much debris is actually composed of plastic.
By definition, microfibers are less than 5mm long—smaller than the width of your hair. Plastic microfibers are those made out of synthetic materials, such as PET aka polyester, nylon, and acrylic.
The danger with these synthetics is that they do not biodegrade as quickly as naturally derived fibers such as cotton, wool, linen, etc. They are too small to be recycled and to the naked eye, they are hard to pinpoint. It is believed that the majority of microfibers are actually being filtered through wastewater management systems, yet it’s not 100% reliable.
Plastic microfibers are still being ingested by marine life and essentially us. The main aspect of this issue that has shocked me the most, is the fact that microplastics have been found everywhere in the world. The study noted previously, only talks about the fiber particles in the Hudson going into the Atlantic, but waterways are polluted with these pesky fibers from Australia to China to the Mediterranean.
Like I mentioned in the introduction: even though there is research regarding the subject, there are still a lot of things that we do not know about plastic microfibers. If they’re being filtered in waste management facilities, why do we still have a large abundance of them? Will this ever be avoided in the future? Is it the manufacturer’s fault? How do we clean this up?
I understand that people within the sustainable fashion community are highly against synthetic fibers, and I don’t completely disagree nor agree.
I think if we’re going to be advocating for shopping second hand as another way of practicing slow fashion, we have to be aware that plastic microfibers will be released from the clothing we buy, even if they come in a “sustainable” setting.
Synthetics are widely used within athletic apparel, outdoor gear and common fibers that are advertised as vegan. We have to understand that ALL clothing items will release fibers at any given point in their life cycle. Washing and caring of clothes induct agitation to clothing which then causes fibers to be released, no matter if you’re using electric washing machines or hand washing.
Before we start a lynching mob to manufacturers and blame them for poorly made products, we have to understand how clothing is made. Threads and yarns come together by spinning fibers. Fibers and filaments are inherently small. These fibers are ending up in the ocean because they will be released through wear and tear.
I saw this chart on Vox where it shows how with the first wear releases the most fibers. To me, it makes sense because the garment hasn’t had a large lifespan where excess fibers have been shed. Through a fiber morphology standpoint, the reason why the cotton-polyester blend releases less fiber is that natural fibers are made imperfectly. They have ridges and scales that increase their cling to other fibers versus synthetics that are smooth with no ridges.
I think that since we’re not getting rid of synthetic fibers any time soon, we have to be cautious of how we approach and consume synthetics.
Here are simple things that you can do to reduce the release of plastic microfibers.
Wash Less Often
Like I mentioned in my post about laundry, you’re probably over washing your clothes. If you opt to elongate the wear and use of your garments, that means that you are applying less agitation to your clothing over time. Also, washing with a front-load washing machine has proven to reduce microfiber release by five times.
Use Liquid Laundry Soap
Again, we’re trying to reduce the amount of agitation that is applied to clothing. Detergent powders can rub/scrub against fibers making it easier for fibers to come apart.
Place lint in the trash
I honestly had no idea that people wash their dryer’s lint filter until I did further research on this topic. Don’t wash your lint filters! Instead, throw the lint in the trash.
Opt for Natural Fibers
Natural fibers take a very small fraction of the time to decompose compared to synthetic fibers. Like I mentioned before, they also have ridges and scales that help cling to other fibers and reduce shedding.
Buy a GuppyFriend bag or washing machine filter
If you’re not going to follow the previous tips or if you want to be more cautious, buy a GuppyFriend or a filter. For the GuppyFriend, wash your synthetics in it and dispose of all the collected fibers after you’re done using it. Apart from the