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How Your Clothes Are Poisoning The Oceans & 10 Ways to Reduce Your Impact

climate action

Washing your clothes seems completely harmless & unrelated to pollution but it actually accounts for 35% of ocean plastic.

It’s been estimated that 35% of the worlds ocean plastic actually comes from clothing. We all know single-use plastic bottles are bad, so why is it that we aren’t aware the impact that our clothing has? Even though it accounts for over a third of the problem.

Just as the topic of conversation seems to have been almost invisible, so is the problem itself: Microfibres. Plastic microfibres are the result of synthetic materials breaking down over time. Synthetic materials are those which are not made of natural materials, something like cotton or silk, but instead are generally made of plastic. The plastic is made into a thread which is then used to make fabrics like polyester and acrylic. These materials are then used to make garments, and are usually found in most fast fashion and athletic clothing items and is said to account for 60% of the global fashion industry.

Something we tend to forget, or just aren’t aware of, is that polyester is made from petroleum.
How are synthetic fabrics causing plastic pollution?

When you put your clothes in a washing machine, the clothes are actually shedding fibres throughout the wash cycle. Material fibres are so small that we never see them, and we know how the saying goes, “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”. Well, that’s exactly how those pesky plastic fibres aren’t getting the air time they deserve, we can’t really see them.

If we can’t see them, we tend to forget that there’s even an impact associated. Until we hear that cumulatively they are responsible for 35% of the problem.
What is the impact of washing synthetic clothing?

One study by Dr. Imogen Napper, showed that a single 6 kg wash of acrylic clothing could release around 700,000 plastic fibres into the water system. The same study looked into polyester and a polyeser-cotton mix and their respective microfibre shedding quantity. Acrylic was by far the worse offender with an average of 723,789 microfibres per wash, followed by polyester with 496,030 fibres and the polyester-cotton mix coming in last with a significantly lower microfibre count of 137,951. Other studies show more harrowing figures of up to 17 million fibres being released in just a single wash cycle.

Just to make matters slightly more difficult to clearly comprehend your individual impact, different studies have shown varying results of the amount of fibres shed during a wash cycle. There isn’t an exact answer on how many fibres are being shed because there’s quite a long list of variables. These variables being, the mix of fabrics, the structure of the weave (the build quality of the fabric itself), the temperature of the wash, the amount loaded into the machine and the detergent used. So as you can see, pinpointing the amount of microfibres released per cycle is quite challenging. But be sure, it is in the hundreds of thousands, regardless of the variables.

To give you a value of your individual amount of pollution from plastic microfibres would be difficult for a few reasons. The first is calculating it, as mentioned above there are so many variables between each of your washes it would be unfair to generalise your output. Secondly, and more importantly, the number would seem small and perhaps unjustly insignificant. Plastic takeaway cups benefit from being an obvious object with an easily quantifiable impact as a result of your direct behaviour. It’s easy to calculate and visually show the impact of a takeaway cup. Plastic microfibres, on the other hand are thinner than a human hair. Even if I were to give you a quantified estimate of kg wastage you might produce, you might not think it’s bad, and that would be a total disaster. Though it equates to 1 kg or less, it’s the size of the microfibres that’s the big issue. It means they easily wash in the water-system and don’t get filtered out before ending up in lakes, rivers & oceans.

Plastic microfibres are thinner than a human hair. Even if I were to give you a quantified estimate of kg wastage you produce, you might not think it’s bad, and that would be a total disaster.
These microfibres, like many other microplastics, actually absorb toxins along the way. These fibres inevitably end up getting ingested by marine life, some of which ends up on your plate for dinner. Not only are we poisoning the water and marine life but also eventually, ourselves. All that from the fleece you washed 3 years ago eventually coming back to invisibly haunt you. Abigail Barrows, a marine scientist, has sampled over 2000 fish and found that about 90% of the debris found in the fish guts were plastic microfibres — both in freshwater and the ocean. Which may make you think twice about buying that polyester t-shirt on the way to your local fish & chip shop.

And if that wasn’t stressful enough to comprehend, synthetic fibres can also be shed in air. WHAT?! So while we sit, eat, walk, and sleep, these fibres are continually being shed into the air and yes, you guessed it, we breathe them in. Wonderful. These irksome little invisible microfibres are literally, everywhere. Think to your household, these fibres are coming off carpets, sofas, curtains.. and sadly, the list goes on.

However, it’s not all bleak, we have the power to make choices and educate ourselves in order to make greener choices that we are more comfortable with. I’ve pulled together a list of simple changes we can collectively make to reduce the amount of microfibre pollution in the oceans and more importantly to start the conversation. Please share this article with your friends & family, together we can make a change that cumulatively seems more significant than 1 kg of microfibres.

Ways to help reduce your fibre pollution.

1. Avoid synthetic materials. Simply say NO to nasty plastic materials; polyester, nylon, acrylic, rayon, spandex, polyamide. Instead opt for choices that are made from cotton, wool, silk.

2. Get a washing machine filter. Washing machine filters are easy to attach and can help you reduce your microfibre pollution significantly, so you don’t have to immediately throw out your existing clothes. Companies like Planet Care have developed a filter that is easy to attach and catches up to 90% of those naughty microfibres before they can escape!

3. Use a wash-bag that’s also a filter! Washing machine filters may not be the answer for you for whatever reason so there is another simple solution to use. A wash-bag. It acts like a filter trapping the fibres that you can then manually remove from the bag after washing & dispose of responsibly. You can get one from Guppy Friend.

In summary, you can see that it’s a big issue that seems to have been swept under a synthetic rug. It’s time to talk about it, educate ourselves and share the message. There is always a choice and change we can make that doesn’t really impact our lives but has a huge impact on the oceans.


This article was originally published By Selma Bambur,

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