Our synthetic clothes hide a dirty little secret. Each time we wash them, hundreds of thousands of tiny microfibers come off. Without anything to stop them, microfibers then enter water systems, in most cases bypassing cleaning filters and eventually infiltrating every nook and cranny in our oceans, rivers and soil, causing microfiber pollution.
But let’s first take a closer look at the main culprit. Microfibers are tiny - much thinner than a human hair - pieces of plastics that make up synthetic fabrics. Most prevalent are polyester and nylon that are used to produce anything from heavy winter gear, fleece jackets and yoga pants.
These fabrics have been welcomed in closets around the world for a good reason - they are cheap to make, sturdy, and durable. In fact, around 60 percent of our clothing consists of synthetic materials or a mix of natural and synthetic. And not only in garments, synthetic fibers are also used in other textile products that we regularly use – just think of carpets, curtains, and blankets.
Washing machine party
When you put your clothes in a washing machine, they never come out the same. As they turn, squeeze and squash, garments shed microfibers – lots of them. A recent report in Nature magazine ballparks the amount anywhere from 640,000 to 1,500,000 microfiber pieces per wash. The smaller number would roughly compare to a surface area of a pack of gum.
An average person releases roughly 300 million microfibers per year by doing laundry. The sheer amount of clothes we own (usually more than 100 pieces) puts the textile industry on the top as the single biggest microplastic polluter. Around 35 precent of this microplastic pollution comes from washing synthetic textiles, according to the researchers at the International Union for the conservation of nature. See the graphic below for a complete breakdown of the biggest microplastic polluters.
Meet the super shedder
Different types of synthetic fabric shed differently. Acrylic fabrics are most generous - around 700,000 fibers are released from an average six kg wash load, one report found out (because of different methodologies, numbers of microfibers, released during washing, can vary depending on a study).
Blends like cotton & polyester release fewer microfibers than fully polyester-made clothing. Yarns and twists also affect shedding. Tightly woven performance gear might not shed much at all while polyester fleece sweaters can leave millions of fibers in a single load of laundry.
From the Himalayas to the deepest trenches - microfiber pollution!
Microfibers are very successful at escaping from the sewage systems into the environment. And, boy, they’ve seen places, from the highest peaks of Himalayas to deepest points of the Pacific.
British scientists, for example, captured amphipods, tiny shrimp-like crustaceans that scavenge on the seabed, from six of the world's deepest ocean trenches. They took them to a lab and looked inside the tiny creatures. In 84 percent of the amphipods – microfibers! The deeper the trench, the more fibers they found. In the Pacific Mariana trench, for example, all of the samples contained microfibers. On a lighter note, the research also provides a glimpse into humanity’s fashion preferences – two thirds of fibers were colored blue.
Microfibers have also been found in the Arctic waters. Guardian, for instance, reported that the ocean is “pervasively polluted by microplastic fibres that most likely come from the washing of synthetic clothes by people in Europe and North America”. At this point, you’ll be luckier to find a place where pieces of your clothes haven’t beaten you there first.
A threat to natural habitats and our health
How much harm these fibers actually cause and what they mean for human health? Scientists have only started pulling on threads here, but what we already know is sadly not encouraging.
Microfibers can act as sponges that harmful chemical pollutants, including carcinogenic dyes, can attach to. Once ingested, these chemicals cause gut blockage, injury and changes to oxygen levels. Microfibers can accumulate in the liver and kidneys of lab mice. They’ve been shown to cause starvation and reproductive issues. In one experiment, for instance, scientists fed crabs with microfiber-contaminated food. They found that the animals soon started to lose their appetite which also reduces energy for growth.
Scientists also believe that small bits of plastics might carry viruses and bacteria that causes diseases. Startling fact, especially considering that microplastics, often as microfibers, have regularly been found in our food, water and drinks. All the samples in two separate studies of German and US beer brands, for instance, have been polluted.
Most of the fish caught in the Northwest Atlantic also had microplastics in their bellies, another report found out. Small fish become prey for larger fish that become food for even larger predators, perhaps served on our plates. People who eat European mussels, clams, and oysters, for example, ingest over 11,000 microplastic particles per year, according to the 2014 study.
»Ingestion of microplastics by marine organisms consumed by humans may pose a public health concern,« researchers Amanda L. Laverty and Fred C. Dobbs have warned in their research on bacteria and microplastics.
Microfiber apples, anyone?
But it’s not just the oceans and marine life that suffers. Microfibers are also in the soil where we grow food. Apples have been found as most contaminated among fruits and carrots among vegetables.
These plastic particles are a potential risk as they may stunt growth of plants and crops. In an experiment with wheat, a crop physiologist from Kansas State University, found out that the microfiber presence in the soil “caused water to pool up on the surface and prevented oxygen from getting to a plant’s roots”. Plastic-treated wheat plants began to yellow and wilt, and “many plants died in the month-long experiment”, Mary Beth Kirkham said in one of the interviews.
Bottom line is that we need more studies to better understand how microfibers (and microplastics in general) affect human health. At best, we will be not be affected directly, “but sea life will suffer, which may in turn circle back to affect humans who rely on the sea for food and livelihood”, as the author of this Harvard University article points out.
Wastewater treatment plants do capture microfibers, but…
Let’s now look at the possible solutions for microfiber pollution. Wastewater treatment plants first come to mind – but do they work? Modern facilities can in fact remove a lot of microfibers from the sewage water - anywhere from 60 to 99 percent, according to recent studies. You might ask what’s the big fuss, then, if majority microfibers are caught before they enter oceans and rivers? Well, two things (that are also explained more in detail in this blog post).
Firstly, new filtering technology is not widely deployed. Many older and smaller treatment plants, on the other hand, are less efficient in removing microfibers or they simply don’t cover all areas. This is true for Europe and North America and is an even greater challenge in developing countries where over 95 percent of the wastewater gets dumped without any treatment whatsoever.
And secondly, even if these plastic particles do get caught by the filters, their journey doesn’t just end there. They still get to have an afterlife in the so-called sludge that sewage treatment facilities produce. Sludge is a residual material that is often rich in nutrients but also loaded with pollutants, including microfibers.
And where does sewage sludge end up? Some is burned, but most of it finishes in the soil, often as fertilizer replacement. From there, the road to our veggies, fruits, and crops is a very short one.
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Find your washing machine – solving microfiber pollution starts there
So what’s the best way to stop microfiber pollution.? Experts suggest we should first look at one of the biggest sources – the washing machine. A few simple changes to your laundry routine will immediately make a big difference. Here are our suggestions that you might find useful (for more, check out our guide on zero-waste laundry)
- Wash with cold water and fewer cycles: A 30-minute cycle on 15°C reduces microfiber releases by 30 percent, compared to a standard 85-minute 40°C cycle. That’s according to a study out of North Umbria University (funded by Proctor & Gamble).
- Invest in a front-loading machine: Top-load machines, popular especially in North America, have seen seven times as many microfibers released compared to front-load washing machines, studies have shown. That’s because front-loaders use less water and tend to shake less.
- Fill up to the allowed max: Try to fill your washing machine up to the recommended capacity – usually, that’s around three-quarters full. Larger wash loads have shown to decrease the release of microfibers due to a lower ratio of water to the fabric.
- Wash clothes less often. The average U.S. household does almost 400 loads of laundry each year. Obviously, it doesn’t apply to socks and underwear, but wearing jeans, skirts or sweaters more than just once before laundry is completely doable and, most importantly, it’s the easiest way to reduce your microfiber footprint.
- Use liquid detergent instead of powder: Liquid stuff is better than washing powder as it causes less friction. It also helps if you use fabric softener; apparently, it reduces the number of fibers by more than 35 percent.
- Install a microfiber filter: Filters are proven to capture microfibers at its source – the washing machine. PlanetCare filter, for instance, blocks around 90 percent of microfibers. It is easy to install and doesn’t require any sophisticated technical skills: you simply attach the filter to the outside of the washing machine or a nearby wall. A bonus tip here: you can also use special laundry balls and garment bags. They are usually cheaper than filters, but also less successful at capturing microfibers in the wash. A 2018 study by the University of Toronto and Ocean Conservancy found that on average, one of these balls reduced the number of microfibers by 26 percent (filters 87 percent).
Another step you can make in pursuit for a world with less microfiber pollution involves some simple adjustments to your wardrobe, such as:
- Buy second-hand & wear clothes longer: There is reason to believe that new clothes release more microfibers than older ones. More specifically, during the first eight washes, microfiber release has been identified as most intensive, according to a study from a Northumbria University. We are big advocates for embracing the clothes we already own!
- Invest in high-quality garments: Fabric construction affects shedding, a study from Patagonia, shows. In their experiments, low-quality, generic-brand fleece shed “significantly more over its lifespan than Patagonia’s products”, which usually uses stronger and more tightly spun threads.
- Buy clothes made out of natural fibers: Organic cotton is renewable, bio-degradable, but also more or less sustainably produced - it is grown without toxic pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. That also makes it better for your skin and health.
The case for and against cotton
The big advantage of natural fabrics, such as wool and cotton, is that they’re completely biodegradable. They are broken down into harmless molecules that are blended again in the natural ecosystem. Plastic microfibers, on the other hand, last for decades if not hundreds of years. See our neat table below for more info on life expectancies of different fabrics (the biodegradability also depends on how the materials are put together)
Being natural, however, doesn't mean it is necessarily good for the planet. Cotton, especially, is in fact one of the most environmentally demanding crops. It takes about 20,000 liters of water to produce 1 kilo of cotton, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
That amount is enough to produce a t-shirt and a pair of jeans - or nearly six months of water use for an average European. Cotton cultivation also badly degrades soil quality. Usual production practices for cotton involve fertilizers and pesticides which contaminate rivers, lakes and underground aquifers. That perfect natural, harmless, friendly and biodegradable material (that is also cheap enough to produce) is obviously the unicorn of the textile industry.
What do the regulators say? So far, not so much.
Individual effort is great and necessary, but it’s not enough. We also need broad regulation that would tackle the issue from the top. One focus of the regulators are the washing machine producers which makes sense - there are only about 30 major washing machine manufacturers in the world, compared to thousands of textile manufacturers.
Some countries are already leading the way. In 2020, France – as the first country in the world - adopted a law that will require all new washing machines to have microfiber filters by 2025. This means that 2.7 million washing machines sold in France each year will have to include microparticle filter by the end of 2024. “We don’t have a choice”, said Brune Poirson, French Secretary of State for the Ecological and Inclusive Transition during a round-table discussion in Paris. PlanetCare was also there – in the picture below, CEO Mojca (left) discusses the implications of France’s new anti-waste law
Meanwhile, in the U.S., the second biggest market for both washing machines and apparel retail, no specific federal regulation has been introduced so far. Some state governments, on the other hand, do acknowledge the problem.
California, for instance, has recently passed a bill that would create a one-year pilot program to see how effective microfiber filters actually are. The pilot results should be in before 2023. New York went a step further: from 2021, every piece of clothing, containing more than 50 percent synthetic fiber, has to include a label warning consumers of microfiber waste and encouraging them to wash by hand.
We need all hands on deck to fight microfiber pollution!
The bottom line: there are no miracle solutions for microfiber pollution. It’s going to take a Herculean effort and all hands on deck to get at rid of these tiny pollutants from contaminating our ecosystems. We need smart regulation, business innovation and individual effort.
In the meantime, we encourage you to spread the word. Discuss the issue with friends and family. Take it on social media and ask fashion brands what they are doing to address the problem. Sign petitions and reach out to your representatives, demanding answers and actions. Also - contact us if you need any help and advice. We love to help!
Before you go, let’s recap
What is microfiber pollution?
Microfiber pollution is caused by tiny plastic particles, mostly polyester and nylon, that clothes shed during washing. Microfiber pollutants have been found in oceans, rivers and soil.
Are microfibers harmful for the environment and human?
The current research on marine organisms and crops poins to the fact that microfiber pollution stunts growth and can cause gut blockage and changes to oxygen levels. Microfibers can act as sponges that harmful chemical pollutants, including carcinogenic dyes, can attach to. At the moment, more studies are needed to better understand how microfibers (and microplastics in general) affect human health.
Is microfiber better than cotton?
Cotton is biodegradable while plastic microfibers (such as polyester and nylon) need decades to break into molecules. The bad news, however, is that regular cotton production requires lots of water and intensive pesticide use. We suggest using organic cotton (which is still thirsty, though).
How do you stop microfiber pollution?
Try to wash your clothes less. When you do wash them, however, do it with colder water and fewer cycles – this will reduce the number of microfibers that have been shed. If possible, also use a specialized microfiber filter that can captures most of the microfibers before they enter the sewage system.