The world is making slow but steady progress in the push to remove plastic microbeads from cosmetic and soap products. Although the world’s oceans may rejoice at that piece of good news, a new study has highlighted a new microplastic peril that's making its way into the marine environment.
Each domestic clothes wash can release more than 700,000 microscopic synthetic fibers into wastewater, according to a new study by Plymouth University in the UK. The full study will be published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin.
Researchers tested out the extent of the problem with different types of polyester, acrylic, and polyester-cotton clothing washed in a washing machine at 30˚C (86˚F) and 40˚C (104˚F). Their research found that a single 6-kilogram (13.2-pound) wash could release an estimated 137,951 fibers from polyester-cotton blend fabric, 496,030 fibers from polyester, and 728,789 from acrylic. It was also found that the addition of fabric softener and bio-detergents released more fibers.
Professor Richard Thompson, the study’s lead author, recently gave evidence to the UK’s inquiry into microbeads, which subsequently led to it banning cosmetics and hygiene products that contain microplastic beads by 2017. However, he notes the action to take here is less clear.
“Clearly, what we are not advocating that this research should trigger something similar to the recently announced ban on microbeads,” Professor Thompson said in a statement.
“In that case, one of the considerations guiding policy intervention was the lack of clear societal benefit from incorporating microplastic particles into the cosmetics, coupled with concerns about environmental impacts. The societal benefits of textiles are without question and so any voluntary or policy intervention should be directed toward reducing emissions either via changes in textile design or filtration of effluent, or both.”
Although this study has highlighted the problem when it comes to domestic clothes washing, scientists and environmentalists have actually studied the effect of the fibers on marine wildlife before. A study from 2015 in the journal Nature discovered that anthropogenic debris was found in a quarter of digestive tracts of fish sampled in the US. Of these, 80 percent of that human-made debris was composed of fibers from textiles.
According to Thompson, however, there has been "little quantitative research on its relevant importance," and the wider effect of these fibers on the environment is not yet fully understood. However, scientists are in agreement in warning it certainly has the potential to wind its way down into the food chain.