The problem of plastics accumulating in the ocean has been widely documented and there are indications that the problem may be getting worse. In fact, there may be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. Efforts to combat this problem range from bans on plastic bags and polystyrene to beach cleanups to smoking bans on beaches (cigarette filters are plastic) to use of skimmer devices in harbors to much larger proposed cleanup devices in the open ocean. To address plastic pollution caused by microbeads that are present in facial scrubs, body wash products and other cosmetics, bans have been enacted in several jurisdictions to prohibit the use of microbeads in these products, and in late 2015 a national Microbead-Free Waters Act bill was signed into law.
But there’s another microplastic problem in the ocean and on our beaches that hasn’t got much attention and appears to be more difficult to address that microbeads – microfibers.
In 2011, British ecologist Mark Anthony Browne published a study, Accumulation of Microplastic on Shorelines Worldwide: Sources and Sinks describing the discovery of micron-scale synthetic fibers, mostly polyester and acrylic, in sediments along beaches around the world, with the highest concentrations appearing near wastewater-disposal sites. That strongly suggested that the micro-fibers came from apparel, a hunch he checked by finding 1,900 fibers in the filter of a washing machine after washing a single fleece jacket. A similar study at VU University Amsterdam in 2012 estimated that laundry wastewater is sending around two billion synthetic microfibers per second into Europe’s waters.
Here is the abstract from Mark Browne’s study:
"Plastic debris <1 mm (defined here as microplastic) is accumulating in marine habitats. Ingestion of microplastic provides a potential pathway for the transfer of pollutants, monomers, and plastic-additives to organisms with uncertain consequences for their health. Here, we show that microplastic contaminates the shorelines at 18 sites worldwide representing six continents from the poles to the equator, with more material in densely populated areas, but no clear relationship between the abundance of miocroplastics and the mean size-distribution of natural particulates. An important source of microplastic appears to be through sewage contaminated by fibers from washing clothes. Forensic evaluation of microplastic from sediments showed that the proportions of polyester and acrylic fibers used in clothing resembled those found in habitats that receive sewage-discharges and sewage-effluent itself. Experiments sampling wastewater from domestic washing machines demonstrated that a single garment can produce >1900 fibers per wash. This suggests that a large proportion of microplastic fibers found in the marine environment may be derived from sewage as a consequence of washing of clothes. As the human population grows and people use more synthetic textiles, contamination of habitats and animals by microplastic is likely to increase.”
Browne and several colleagues gathered sand samples from 18 beaches on six continents for analysis. Every beach tested contained microfibers, and nearly 80 percent were polyester or acrylic. According to an article in Science,
“Not a single beach was free of the colorful synthetic lint. Each cup of sand contained at least two fibers and as many as 31. The most contaminated samples came from areas with the highest population density, suggesting cities were an important source of the lint.”
Fleece jackets are just one of the many products in the synthetic apparel industry, which is clothing partially made from virgin or recycled plastics that have been turned into tiny fibrous plastic materials. These microfibers can be as small as half the size of a red blood cell. When the source of the material is recycled plastics, microfibers have generally been considered an affordable and sustainable material that diverts plastics away from the landfill. Yet results from a variety of studies indicate that this recycled clothing technique may have been causing more harm than good.
Subsequent studies have not only confirmed the existence of this problem, but also discovered that the severity and magnitude of microfibers entering and escaping wastewater treatment facilities was worse than originally thought. A 2012 study at VU University Amsterdam estimated that laundry wastewater is sending around two billion synthetic microfibers per second into Europe’s waters. In 2016, a study from the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at University of California, Santa Barbara found that up to 250,000 synthetic microfibers get released every time a fleece jacket gets washed, with an estimated 40% entering local water bodies. In the state of California alone, it is estimated that billions of microfibers escape wastewater treatment plants every day.
Microplastics (including microfibers) are easily ingested by marine life which may end up on our dinner plates. Essentially the plastics we are washing down the drain with our laundry may work their way up the food chain and come back to haunt us.
Not only does the ingestion of these microfibers reduce the amount of nutrition obtained from feeding, it also poses an additional risk of harmful bacteria and toxic exposure. Of all chemicals known to be persistent in our environment, bioaccumulative in the food chain, and toxic to life (also known as PBTs), 78% are found in or on microfibers. As a result, the concentrations of PBTs in microfibers are orders of magnitude greater than the concentration of PBTs otherwise found in seawater. Examples of observed PBTs included pesticides like DDT, and plastic additives like brominated flame retardants.
Microfibers can actually enter and remain in the bloodstream and tissues of the food we eat. The bioaccumulation of these toxic chemicals puts all affected marine creatures, and wildlife that consume affected marine creatures, at risk. A 2015 study found that one in three shellfish, and one in four finfish sampled at a California fish market contained microfibers, and these fish were headed straight for the dinner table. It is estimated that people could be unknowingly ingesting 11,000 microfibers each year from shellfish consumption, and 178 microfibers from eating a single mussel.
Beyond risks from consumption, the sheer magnitude of the amount of microfibers throughout marine and coastal environments can have serious ecological implications. Studies have identified a reduction in oyster reproduction rates, and impacts to the sexual determination of baby sea turtles from the slowed warming rates of sandy sediment containing microfibers, among other effects.
The problem of microfibers is not just an ocean issue. When Sherri “Sam” Mason, a chemist with the State University of New York at Fredonia and a group from the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant program took samples from southern Lake Michigan in 2013, about 12% of the debris consisted of microfibers. Mason’s research also indicated that microfibers seem to be getting stuck inside fish in ways that other microplastics aren’t. Microbeads and fragments that fish eat typically pass through their bodies and are excreted. But microfibers were enmeshed in the gastrointestinal tracts of some fish Mason and her students examined. Their study helped confirm the bioaccumulative ability of these fibers to move up the food chain by finding fibers inside a double-crested cormorant, a fish-eating bird.
Mason also speculated that there is a chance that fibers are in drinking water piped from the lakes. And your beer may also contain microplastics. Scientists reported in 2014 that two dozen varieties of German beer contained microplastics.
So what are the solutions? There appear to be no easy answers. One way to begin to address the problem is to try to make clothes that shed less plastic fibers when washed. In 2013, Browne launched a new project “Benign by Design,” to help reduce the number of microfibers released into the oceans. Working collaboratively with designers to create fabrics that were more durable and released less plastic waste during wash cycles, this project could help stop the problem of microfiber pollution at the source.
Another way to address the problem is to reduce the amount of times synthetic clothing gets washed, and when need be, use washing machines with filters installed that catch the microfibers in the wastewater. Although filters are not a common feature in washing machines, some manufacturers do include them and filters are commercially available. Other more innovative filters are reportedly under development. It is also better to use front-loading, high efficiency washing machines instead of top-loading washing machines. The Bren School researchers found that top-loading washing machines released 5X more microfibers than front-loading washing machines; and the more you wash it, the worse it gets (aged jackets released almost 2X the amount as new jackets). When possible, avoid powder detergents and wash clothing at a low temperature.
The final place to catch microfibers before they are flushed to the ocean is at wastewater treatment plants. Although a typical secondary treatment plant will not do an effective job removing microfibers, plants that employ tertiary treatment to produce reclaimed water for non-potable uses typically use filtration which would remove microfibers. Wastewater treatment plants that use advanced treatment to produce potable water use microfiltration (as well as other technologies) which will also effectively remove microfibers. If wastewater is recycled and does not reach the ocean, the microfibers won’t get there either.
Check out this video from The Story of Stuff that discusses the microfiber issue.
References and Additional Information Sources
Accumulation of Microplastic on Shorelines Worldwide: Sources and Sinks, Environmental Science and Technology. 2011.
Carson, H. S., S. L. Colbert, M. J. Kaylor, and K. J. Mcdermid. "Small Plastic Debris Changes Water Movement and Heat Transfer through Beach Sediments." Marine Pollution Bulletin (2011): 1708-713.Rochman, C.M., E. Hoh, T.
Contaminants in Marine Plastic Pollution: the new toxic time-bomb’, National Toxics Network, 2016.
From Spin to Sea: Polyester Microfibers Clog Our Beaches, Triple Pundit, 2014.
Great Lakes struggling with invisible threat of plastic microfibre pollution, The Guardian, 2015.
How much may German beers be contaminated by microplastics?, Science Daily, 2014.
Ingested plastic transfers hazardous chemicals to fish and induces hepatic stress, Scientific Reports, 2013.
Laundry Lint Pollutes the World's Oceans, Science Magazine, 2011.
Microfibers: How the Tiny Threads in Our Clothes Are Polluting the Bay, KQED Science, 2016.
Microfiber Pollution and the Apparel Industry, Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, Patagonia, 2016.
Microplastics in bivalves cultured for human consumption, PubMed, 2014.
Mitigation of microplastics impact caused by textile washing processes, MERMAID project, 2016.
Oceans Teem with Tiny Plastic Particles, Scientific American, 2011.
Oyster Reproduction Is Affected by Exposure to Polystyrene Microplastics, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2016.
Single clothes wash may release 700,000 microplastic fibres, study finds, The Guardian, 2016.
Sussarellu, R., M. Suquet, Y. Thomas, C. Lambert, C. Fabioux, M. .. Pernet, N. Goïc, V. Quillien, C. Mingant, Y. Epelboin, C. Corporeau, J. Guyomarch, J. Robbens, I. Paul-Pont, P. Soudant, and A. Huvet. "Oyster Reproduction Is Affected by Exposure to Polystyrene Microplastics." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2016): 2430-435.
The Company Turning 4 Billion Plastic Bottles into Clothes, CNN Tech, 2016.
The Invisible Nightmare in Your Fleece, Outsideonline, 2015.
Your clothes are polluting the ocean every time you do laundry, Treehugger, 2014.