Introduction to Microfibres

Photo by  Karly Santiago

I’ll start this off with the assumption that it’s more likely than not that you are well aware of the crisis plastic pollution is causing around the world. We’ve all seen the video of the turtle with a straw stuck in its nose, the birds with plastic filled bellies, and plastic bottles floating in our waterways. But have you seen the plastic that is ending up in your drinking water?

You read that right, the most widespread form of plastic pollution is now showing up in our most essential need, drinking water.

An analysis conducted by scientists for Orb Media found that the US had the highest contamination rate, at 94%, with plastic fibres found in tap water sampled at sites including Congress buildings, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters, and Trump Tower in New York. Lebanon and India had the next highest rates.

So, where are these micro fibers coming from?

These plastic fibers are much more prevalent than you may have ever thought. The fibers come from everyday items like leggings, carpet, and furniture. These items are made from synthetic fibers which are derived from crude oil. When melted, the synthetic material has the consistency of cold honey and when the material is squeezed through a spinneret, (picture a shower head in your bathroom) the honey-like substance becomes a long continuous filaments. Draw those filaments out into thin fibers, weave dozens of those fibers together, and you have a fabric such as polyester.

There are a few other synthetic options, including rayon and nylon, but the most prevalent (due to it’s cheap cost) is polyester. Tecnon Orbichem estimates that more than 98% of future fiber production will be synthetics, and 95% of that synthetic fiber will be polyester.

These fibers are making their way to our drinking water through our washing machines as well as our atmosphere. The microfibers then travel to your local wastewater treatment plant, where up to 40% of them enter rivers, lakes and oceans. By sampling wastewater from domestic washing machines, Browne estimated that around 1,900 individual fibers can be rinsed off a single synthetic garment.

Why isn’t this issue more well known?

The study of micro fibers is very new in terms of scientific research. In fact, the first evidence of microfiber pollution was documented only 7 years ago by Dr. Mark Browne (Guardian). In addition to the research being fairly recent, the production of polyester itself is a modern day phenomenon. Polyester has only been a fixture in our closets since 1951 (History of Polyester). That’s when the first polyester suits (made from fabric created not by a textile company but by the American chemical company DuPont) went on sale.

With that in mind, it is important to note that the overall health and environmental effect of these pollutants is not known yet.

However, scientists have already proven bioaccumulation in biovalves that consume microplastics. Bioaccumulation or biomagnification is the concern that chemicals associated with microscopic plastic could be transferred to the internal system of lower-tropic-level organisms such as mussels, oysters or copepods, then biomagnified to animals at higher tropic levels. This would mean not only persistence but increases in levels of toxic chemicals as the toxins continue to move upwards on the food web (Ocean Health Index).

So, what can we do?

The most effective way for all of us to be part of the solution instead of the pollution would be to consciously choose natural fibers over synthetic ones. This would mean organic cotton, hemp, and bamboo over polyester, rayon, and nylon.

We can also choose to wash our clothing less. Yes I know this may sound a little gross the first time you consider it, but hear me out. We often wash our clothing after wearing a garment just one time, regardless of the fact of it being dirty or not. Next time you reach to throw you top into the laundry hamper, consider whether or not you really need to contribute to the estimated 1,900 individual fibers can be rinsed off a single synthetic garment.

Next - we can tell companies we care! Write to your favorite clothing brands and express to them that you are aware of the microfiber pollution and you would love to be able to continue supporting their brand, but that they need to make a public statement that they will move towards less polluting fabrics. Companies like Patagonia have already heard the message loud and clear and have been funding multiple studies surrounding this pollution crisis.

Encourage your representatives to push for pollution controls. These can include better filters on our washing machines and/ or wastewater treatment plants.

Lastly, you can invest in alternatives yourself. You can choose to purchase an item such as a Guppy Friend. This bag traps the mice fibers inside and allows you to remove the fibers before they can make it to our waterways, and eventually our drinking water.


Resources

  • https://orbmedia.org/stories/Invisibles_plastics

  • http://www.orbichem.com/userfiles/APIC%202014/APIC2014_Yang_Qin.pdf

  • https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2014/oct/27/toxic-plastic-synthetic-microscopic-oceans-microbeads-microfibers-food-chain

  • http://www.whatispolyester.com/history.html

  • http://www.oceanhealthindex.org/news/Microplastics

  • https://www.patagonia.com/product/guppyfriend-washing-bag/O2191.html


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LIM CONTRIBUTOR

SHELBIZLEEE

Shelbi is the creator of the YouTube channel SHELBIZLEE, a space dedicated to helping educate people on the waste pandemic, green washing and much much more. With a background in environmental science, Shelbi hopes to create change from the top down in our social and governmental systems. 

Find more about me at www.shelbizleee.com

Instagram: @shelbizleee YouTube: Shelbizleee

Shelbi Orme