When Shackleton and Scott first explored Antarctica, they wore camel-hair suits and reindeer pants. We’ve come a long way since then, with high-tech synthetics, lightweight downs, fuzzy fleeces and stretchy activewear. This has allowed us to tackle harsher climates, climb higher and stay outside longer.
But recently a sinister side of synthetic fibres has come to light. At the bottom of the sea, littering beaches, inside our seafood, even moving around inside our bodies, tiny ‘microfibres’ are shedding from our clothes in the wash and ending up in the environment (and ourselves). With over 19,000 fibres shedding from one jacket, in one wash, these tiny pieces of plastic are a huge problem.
Tiny Plastic Fibres. Massive Problems.
When jackets, fleeces, swimsuits, t-shirts, yoga pants – basically any nylon, acrylic or polyester fabric – are washed, they shed small fragments of fibre, usually less than 5mm long. Many of these microfibres flush from our washing machines straight out to sea and now make up up to 85% of the plastic littering our shorelines.
We know the problems caused by plastic bags, bottles and other plastic pollution, but it wasn’t until 2011 that we started to realise that these tiny fibres are a massive problem.
Ecologist Dr Mark Browne showed that microfibres are littering six continents, and that the fish in Sydney Harbour partake in a ‘high fibre’ diet of synthetic fibres. These tiny plastic pieces have since been found in corals, crabs, tuna, sea anemones, even the tiny creatures living at the deep, dark bottom of the sea. They’re frozen into Arctic sea ice and are raining from the sky onto remote Pyrenees mountains.
The worst culprits appear to be budget synthetic fleece and old clothes (which shed 25% more). But any synthetic fabric will shed fibres, including those made from recycled materials.
But Wait, My Leggings Are Recycled Bottles. Isn’t Recycling Good?
Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. Recycled plastic fabrics shed microfibres just like their virgin plastic counterparts. The psychology of recycled fabric clothes also raises an issue – it may encourage people to continue to use plastic, thinking that it can just be recycled later.
So, while at first glance recycled polyesters may reduce dependence on petroleum products and produce less carbon in the manufacturing process, it may still bolster the plastic industry. While well-intentioned and highly functional, this isn’t quite the solution it’s marketed as.
Eating Our Pants – How These Fibres Get Into Our Food
These fibres introduce chemicals into our food chain and even cause physical damage. Once it’s been flushed out to sea, plastic acts as a sponge for chemicals in the water, such as heavy metals, pesticides, flame retardants and industrial chemicals. When they’re consumed, those pollutants move into the fatty tissue and then up the food chain. These tiny pieces can cause tissue inflammation, DNA damage and blood clots.
It’s literally reached the point where we’re eating our own trash – tiny plastic particles have been found in beer, salt, water and seafood, with up to 11,000 particles eaten per year by the average seafood consumer. They’ve recently even been found in our poop.
What Are Companies Doing About It?
As consumers, we can be part of the solution, but ultimately the companies that make these products need to take responsibility.
‘It’s pretty clear there’s no quick fix and that we will need to find a multi-faceted solution to this problem.’ – Manu Rastogi, Head of Product Sustainability for Kathmandu.
Many Aussie companies are implementing changes. Mont have reduced production of fleece garments and are researching new non-shedding technology, with biodegradable fleece options being released in 2020. Kathmandu have asked their textile suppliers to find non-shedding materials, and have a range made with ‘wear more, wash less’ Polygiene fabric.
An industry group made up of Patagonia, Arcteryx, MEC and REI have been funding Ocean Wise to learn more about fibre shedding rates and textile construction. While some recommendations have come out of the research, there’s little evidence of substantial changes being made in the outdoor clothing industry so far.
When I asked several large Australian outdoor companies what their position was, I was mostly pointed towards consumer-based solutions like the Guppy Friend. I totally support these solutions, but believe these big brands should be doing more. They could invest profits to upgrade waste-water treatment facilities or withdraw the sale of their most plastic-shedding products. Acknowledging and researching the issue is the first step, but there’s a lot more big businesses could be doing.
What Can I Do?
I’m not demanding a return to the glory days of reindeer pants. But I am asking you to make some changes. Be mindful of your own clothing purchases and washing, but also put pressure on brands to design quality products that don’t harm the environment (and us).
Technology may help one day, but we’re still a long way off cleaning the ocean. It’s up to all of us to do what we can to stop plastics at the source. Here’s how to get started:
- Avoid cheaply made clothes – high quality products last longer and shed less.
- Buy natural fibres like hemp and cotton
- Avoid synthetics where possible, including: polyester, acrylic, elastane, spandex, lycra, nylon, viscose, polyamide, and recycled plastic fabrics (like PET)
- Choose smooth over fluffy – fleeces and yarn shed the most
- Wash less frequently – spot clean instead
- Wear less frequently – save your activewear for the mountains
- Wash with a full load (less friction)
- Use colder wash settings
- Use a Guppy Friend (catches 79% of fibres) or Cora Ball in your laundry (catches 26% of fibres)
- Attach a washing machine filter to your machine
- Hand wash
- Don’t wash on the ‘delicate’ setting – it increases release of microfibres and uses more water
- Avoid top load washing machines
- Speak up – Ask your favourite brands what they’re doing about microfibres and let them know you won’t shop with them until they have policy around it
- Support legislation targeting this issue
- Keep the pressure on – compulsory washing machine filters, improving wastewater facilities; these are large scale changes that will make a difference. But these won’t happen without large scale knowledge and support for change.