Microfibres seems to have exploded into sustainability circles this year. These tiny pieces of synthetic fibres may be small, but given the sheer volume we’ve made, they threaten to pollute our water supplies and harm wildlife with tiny pieces of plastics that won’t decompose. We know that small organisms introduce known pollutants into the food chain when they eat these, and about one in four fish sold at fish markets contain these fibres. While clothing is not the only source of microplastics, it does account for most microfibres in our water supplies, and they worm their way into our oceans every time someone washes a polyester, nylon, or any other synthetic garment.
This information is just now reaching a critical mass and peeking through to mainstream outlets, but the original research was done in 2011. It was Ecologist Mark Browne who first noticed these tiny fibers while studying shorelines around the world. He found that 85% of all human-made materials found on the shoreline were microfibres; our world has become fuzzy with them. The problem of microplastics was known at the time, but it was his paper that turned the spotlight to clothing and the approximately 1,900 individual fibres that can come from a single garment. He contacted clothing companies to collaborate on new research to create new fibres and reduce this environmental risk, but only Eileen Fisher supported the initiative.
It’s not just industrial greywater that makes the impact, either. This year, a study was published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin that found a uniform distribution of microfibres across the Hudson river, from pristine rural areas to the bustling New York City. This implies that these plastics are ubiquitous because they’re being expelled from every household in the world that washes their clothes and that nearly every water source is at risk for being contaminated – not just those close to the manufacturing sector.
What can I do?
For those of us who want to buy vintage clothing, supporting a circular economy, or invest in pieces that will last for years, creating a capsule wardrobe, this information is alarming. Do you reuse an old polyester shirt, releasing microfibres, or do you buy something new, creating new pollution in other ways?
While its best to avoid these fabrics, some things like tights and stockings are nearly impossible to find without synthetics, and we can’t ignore the millions of tons that already exist. Unfortunately, there’s no perfect solution. The Guppy Friend is a garment bag made specifically to reduce capture microfibres, though any garment bag would reduce mechanical agitation of the clothing lowering the amount shed, but then you just put the collected fibres in the trash. Yes, it’s better than in the oceans which already have so much strain due to human activity, but is a landfill that much better if they won’t decompose?
Washing your clothes less often is an even more effective tactic. I’ve found some detergent sprays really help me extend the life of my delicate or handmade clothes that can’t survive many washings, and I’m sure the same would hold for synthetics. Bonus points for air drying your clothes, too.
The immediate need is to reduce the number of microfibres in the ocean, but the long-term goal should be to change or eliminate fabrics that shed so much plastic and improve the filtration system of commercial washing machines. You can check out Plastic Pollution Coalition’s 15 steps to reduce microfibres if you want more ideas for how you can change your habits. If you want to know more, don’t forget to check out this online guide on ocean pollution as well.