We’re all pretty tuned in to the problem posed by microplastics, the teensy bits of plastic from cosmetics, packaging, and industrial processes that end up meddling with the world’s natural environment.
However, it’s less known that our clothes are the third-largest direct source of microplastic pollution in our oceans. Each wash of acrylic fabrics can release over 700,000 plastic microfibers, which can drain into wastewater treatment plants and eventually the ocean. It’s estimated that some 190,000 tonnes (209,000 tons) of plastic microfibers are poured into the world’s waters every year.
Plastic microfibers can then become incorporated into the bodies of marine life and perhaps even end up on your dinner plate. In fact, a recent study estimated that more than 90 percent of table salts around the world may contain microplastics.
It isn't just shiny sportswear and polyester yoga pants that are the problem, many of your clothes may contain acrylic fibers without you being aware. Plastic microfibers can be incorporated into all kinds of textiles, often the extra-thick wool-like clothing you’ll wear this fall.
So, with all of these big environmental problems at hand, it raises the question: what can we do about this?
Unfortunately, there are not masses we can achieve as individuals. Although there are some alternatives to plastics, such as wool, bamboo, silk, and cotton, they can’t meet ever-growing global demand and often come with their own environmental challenges. Cotton, for example, is often produced using copious amounts of agrochemicals and a mind-blowing amount of water – it takes about 2,700 liters (594 gallons) to make one cotton t-shirt.
Writing on behalf of Fauna & Flora International, an international conservation charity, Dr Abigail Entwistle explains: “Our wider research has shown me that so-called alternatives to plastic are not always straightforward. The same is true for plastic clothing – identifying alternatives to plastic that can work at scale is not easy.
“We believe the main answers must lie with the businesses that produce or handle the clothing; particularly when we know that plastic microfiber release during production may be as important as through domestic washing. The evidence suggests that careful design of the underlying fibers and yarns used to make fabric may be one way to limit the escape of plastic microfibers to the ocean."