If you are reading this, you likely purchase clothing with the intention of making the best choices for both yourself and the environment. Maybe you’ve made the decision to buy most of your clothing secondhand, or you purchase clothes made from recycled materials. Unfortunately, whether you’re wearing fleece vests made from old bottles, vintage Lycra bodysuits, or fast-fashion branded t-shirts you may be adding microplastics into the water supply without realizing it.
Most clothing is woven fabric made by spinning tiny fibers into strong threads that are bound into textiles using a loom. Historically, fabrics have been made from plants or animals, think of wool, linen, hemp, cotton, or silk. These fabrics are still common, but over 60 percent of the clothing we now wear is comprised of synthetic (aka plastic) fabrics, like nylon, polyester, spandex, and acrylic. Synthetic materials have useful properties, they can wick away moisture, conform to our bodies, and can often be found at an affordable price point. However, because synthetic fabrics are made from plastic, it becomes problematic at the time of disposal. (You can find more information about textile waste and how to combat it in the first two posts of this series.)
One study conducted by graduate students from the University of California Santa Barbara in partnership with the clothing company, Patagonia, showed that an average of 1.7 grams of microfiber sheds each time you wash a polyester fleece jacket . This seems like a small amount, but it adds up globally. It is difficult to quantify how many of these fibers end in our water system, but microplastics have been found everywhere from the soil of national parks and artic ice samples to over 90 percent of bottled drinking water. They are so widespread that it is nearly impossible to avoid them.
Microplastics enter our bodies through the water we drink and most of the food we eat. One study from the University of Newcastle found that humans likely consume approximately 2000 microplastics a week, which is about 5 grams or the size of a credit card. Methods for removing microplastics (and larger particles) have been mostly ineffective. There has been research into plastic consuming fungi and bacteria which may have implications in the future, but while scientists seek solutions, we should reduce or eliminate the microfibers we release into the environment.
There are also products to trap some of the microfibers in your washing machine before they can become an issue. The Cora Ball, for example, is Vermont product that can be placed in the washer with each load of laundry to catch 31% of microfibers before they go down the drain. Or, if you have only a few pieces of synthetic clothing, you may find that using garment washing bags is more effective. The Guppyfriend bag, for example, reduces the friction on clothing and decreases released fibers by 75% to 86%.
Installing a larger filter to the hose of your machine such as these from Girlfriend Collective, Filtrol, or PlanetCare can help capture fibers in a way similar to a dryer lint catcher. There is legislation that’s been proposed in California to require manufacturers of washing machines to install microfiber filtration systems into new products. If this is an important issue for you it would be worth asking your state representatives if they would propose or support similar legislation. Microplastics are a widespread issue and the scale of the problem or its solution is not yet clear, but awareness could advance research and understanding.
Amanda Clement is serving as the ECO AmeriCorps member at CVSWMD. Amanda is a life-long Vermonter who has a BA in Environmental Studies and Political Science from Castleton University. In her free time Amanda likes to visit covered bridges, explore new places, and experimenting with baking or fermenting.