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Microplastics & Clothing

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Microfibers are omnipresent—these tiny threads of polyester, nylon, acrylic, and other synthetic textiles have polluted our environment at an unprecedented scale. Approximately 2 million tons of microfibers are released into the ocean every year from various sources like fabrics, fishing nets, plastic bags, fires, curtains, furniture, carpet, old interior paint, and mattresses. With over 1.5 million trillion microfibers present in the ocean, they stand as the main pollutant of the marine environment.

 The proliferation of microfibers results from domestic laundering and textile industries; 60% of the plastic pollution in the ocean is contributed by China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. The microfibers accumulate in coast lines of densely populated areas and despite technological advancements, they are nonrenewable and nonbiodegradable. Additionally, they are present in polar regions, despite the vast distance from them. 

 The quality of water is getting worse over time and domestic drainage systems are another main source. It is estimated that in a single laundry wash, approximately 121,465 acrylic, 82,672 polyester, and 22,992 poly-cotton microfibers are released into the ocean. Approximately 150 million microfibers are released into the Atlantic Ocean daily. Filtration systems and water treatments are not equipped to filter the exceptionally small microfibers. They travel from washing machines to drainage systems and ultimately end up in marine water—there is an estimated 1.4 trillion microfiber particles in the ocean that present problems to our biodiversity. A recent study found that more than 50% of would populations have microplastics in their system. They are not only in water; the circulation of microplastics can be seen in table salt and seafood. Additionally, the seafood that humans consume can cause diseases linked to hormonal disruption, reproductive problems, nervous tissue, and liver and kidney damage.

 For the amount of microplastics to decline, manufacturers would have to employ ethical practices that involve utilizing natural materials like natural microfibers that are biodegradable. However, it is difficult to avoid using synthetic fabrics because they are economical and available. Fibers can now be observed on clothing, floors, display monitors, uninterrupted surfaces, and various cosmetic products. Approximately 75 million tons of polyester and 4 million tons of nylon are produced annually. 


***About the blog post author: Robin Molina is an undergraduate student studying Medical Humanities at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She writes about mental health, the environment, and translates articles for The Paisano, Paisano Plus Magazine, and her own blog, Sorbetesque. She likes traveling, dancing, and taking hikes with her dog. ***




What We Can Do

Systemic changes are necessary, yet consumers can still play active roles to bring about greater change. Below we have provided a few simple steps you can take to decrease the amount of microplastics you are releasing into the water system. 

  1. Use your purchase power. Purchase clothing made of biodegradable materials like organic cotton, wool, linen, silk, and hemp.  Federal law dictates that all clothing must have the percentage of material make up of garments listed on tags. Start with a simple tag check before purchasing (and while your at it, check to see what country the garment was produced in).  If the item is made from materials like polyester, nylon, acrylic, or a material you’ve never heard of, chances are high the garment is not biodegradable. 

  1. Do the research about how the materials were produced.  Cotton, though biodegradable requires more water in its growth, production, and processing than other materials like linen and hemp. When purchasing cotton pieces, consider looking for organic cotton or “BCI” cotton (BCI stands for Better Cotton Initiative).  Rayon, derived from wood pulp, can contribute to deforestation.  

  1. Check the tag to determine where you clothing is manufactured. Aim to purchase items manufactured in the U.S.A.  Avoid purchasing items produced in countries with the highest rates of microfiber pollution, specifically China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. 

  1. Use sustainable laundry practices.  This means washing less and spot cleaning as much as possible.  For more information on sustainable laundry practices, please read our previous blog post:

  1. Push for systemic changes by advocating for regulation on local, national, and global levels.  Donate your time, energy, and resources organizations working to study and eliminate microplastics.  One organization doing incredible work is Oceana. Click the link to donate, learn more, and take the #BreakFreeFromPlastic pledge: