Microfibres: Do You Know About This Type of Plastic Pollution?
Momentum behind the plastic free movement is making waves in communities across the globe, with millions changing their lifestyles with the aim of consuming less plastic. But it’s not just large plastic items, like water bottles and plastic straws, that have a devastating impact on our oceans. Microfibres have been reported in all major ocean basins globally and can have catastrophic impacts on our marine life and wider food chain.
So where have these micro pieces of plastic come from? And what can you do to reduce the amount of them you release into our waterways? Hannah Rudd helps us find out the answers.
What exactly are microfibres?
Microfibres are defined as “threadlike particles with a length between 100 micrometres and 5 millimetres and a width of 1.5 orders of magnitude shorter” (Barrows et al., 2018).
But what exactly does that mean in plain English?
Well, they tend to be really, really tiny – microscopic in most cases! This makes it incredibly difficult to see them with the naked eye. As a result, we don’t even realise that they’re there half the time.
It’s thought that just a single piece of synthetic clothing can release over 700,000 microfibres over its lifetime. A lot of these are released when clothing is washed. The water from your washing machine is eventually released into waterways which join the sea. So it’s no surprise that microfibres are one of the most commonplace forms of marine debris along our coastlines.
Why are microfibres bad?
Microfibres don’t break down fully, they just get smaller, which means they build up in the marine environment. There have even been reports of scientists cutting open fish and finding microfibres woven into their gastrointestinal tract! It gets more disturbing when you bear in mind that many of these fish and shellfish go straight into our food chains.
It’s difficult to pin down exactly how harmful microfibres are to human health – little research has so far been conducted in the field. However, it seems reasonable to suggest that ingesting plastic isn’t great for any species.
What work is currently being done?
By producing clothes made from natural fibres (i.e. cotton, linen, silk, wool, cashmere) rather than synthetic fibres (i.e. polyester, acrylic, nylon, spandex, acetate), many brands reduce the amount of synthetic clothes on the market.
The problem is that this tends to only be occurring within smaller companies. The release of microfibres into waterways is a widespread issue and often the focus is on consumers lowering demand to reduce waste.
This is where you come in.
How can you help?
Purchase a Guppy Friend wash bag
Although perhaps an expensive investment – retailing at £25 – a Guppy Friend bag can collect 99% of microfibres released during a wash.
It’s an unbelievably easy bit of kit to use. Just pop your clothes in the bag before washing and it collects almost all the minuscule microfibres that are released throughout the wash. Afterwards, simply dispose of them in your waste bin, rather than releasing them into waterways.
Avoid purchasing “fast-fashion”
Fast-fashion is one of the major culprits of synthetic fibres. It’s cheap to make and cheap to buy.
Globally, the fashion industry is one of the highest polluting industries in the world, both in terms of emissions and non-biodegradable waste produced. A shocking 60% of clothing products produced annually contain polyester, so it’s not hard to see how the microfibre problem is so widespread.
Instead of purchasing new “fast-fashion”, visit second-hand and vintage stores, or exchange clothes online. You can also up-cycle your current clothes into something new – those jeans you love can become shorts when they become worn, for example.
Purchase clothes made from natural fibres
Natural fibres (i.e. cotton, linen and wool) will naturally biodegrade when you’re finished with them. Synthetic fibres, on the other hand, don’t biodegrade meaning those polymer fibres hang around for ever.
As consumers, we have the power to reduce demand for synthetic fibres and put pressure on large clothing companies to change their product manufacturing. Clothing made from natural fibres, despite being more expensive traditionally, also lasts longer.
It’s easier to make this change if you view your clothing as an investment, rather than a quick trend.
Change your washing machine settings
Higher temperatures tend to damage your clothes more and will therefore release more microfibres. Lowering your revs too can make all the difference – higher revs will increase the friction between the clothes and again release more microfibres.
Both practices are not only more eco-friendly, they are also more economical too, so they’re likely to save you some money. Which you can then put towards your new ethical wardrobe.
Share this article with the hashtag #StopTheMicrofibers
The simplest thing you can do to help spread awareness of microfibres is to share this article. Tell your friends over a coffee, your family over the phone or your colleagues after your meeting. How ever, and who ever you tell doesn’t matter as long as you share the message with someone.
Making more people aware of the devastating effects microfibres have on marine ecosystems, and possibly human health, will heighten the pressure on multinational companies to generate the positive change we need.
If you would like to find out more about microfibres, visit The Story of Microfibers here: https://storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-microfibers/
Hannah Rudd is a writer, communicator and ocean advocate. Check out her work at hannahrudd.com
Barrows, A.P.W., Cathey, S.E., and Petersen, C.W. (2018). Marine environment microfiber contamination: Global patterns and the diversity of microparticle origins. Environmental Pollution. 237: 275-284
Main photo by Daniel Spase from Pexels.