What is Microfiber Pollution?
Plastic is everywhere. Look around your home, workplace, local supermarket or any other store – it is very hard to find products that don’t include some type of plastic. In fact, you don’t even need to look beyond your personal space to find this notorious material – your phone, credit cards in your wallet, your shoes and clothes are all made of plastic, at least to some extent.
Besides being all around us, large amounts of plastics are also found in the ocean. It is a well-known fact that all plastic waste deteriorates over time, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces, creating microplastics. We’ve been hearing a lot about microplastic pollution lately and the harm it does to marine life, but not so much about one of the biggest causes of it – plastic microfibers.
What Are Microfibers?
About 65% of the material used for making clothes today is some type of plastic – polyester, acrylic, nylon, lycra, PVC and their combinations. Synthetic materials owe their popularity to their cheapness and ease of production. Wearing and washing synthetic clothes causes the material to wear out and shed microfibers. These fibers are very small (their diameters are often measured in micrometers), making their removal from wastewater very problematic, so a large portion of them ends up in the environment, polluting rivers and oceans. It is estimated that microfibers make up 35% of the primary microplastics polluting the oceans.
The problem of microfiber pollution is only increasing with the rising popularity of fast fashion. Fast fashion brands copy the latest designs from the catwalk and mass-produce trendy clothes using cheap materials, most commonly polyester. These clothing pieces are quick to move from the runway into the stores, becoming widely available at appealing prices, but due to their low quality they also quickly end up in the garbage. This trend is not sustainable, yet it is growing. Many large retailers are still uncertain about how to deal with this problem, and the mounting pile of microplastics just keeps polluting the environment.
What Are the Effects of Microfiber Pollution?
Deposits of microplastic particles can have detrimental effects on marine life, especially on species that are at the base of the food chain. Researchers from the University of Exeter, UK, studied the effects of contaminated ocean sediments on lugworms and concluded that their energy levels were decreased due to microplastic ingestion. Another study, performed by researchers at the University of Plymouth has shown that ingestion of microplastic particles by marine animals transfers pollutants and additives to their tissues, obstructing their physiological processes. Ingesting microplastics also affects zooplanktons, a very important species in the ocean food chain. Zooplanktons feed on algae and are one of the key species that prevent their overpopulation. What is even more concerning is that microplastics ingested by the species at the base of the food chain usually end up in tissues of animals who eat them, spreading throughout the entire ecosystem. If we take the laws of cause and effect into account, it becomes evident how these tiny plastic particles could potentially change both marine and terrestrial life as we know it.
But what about human health? How do microfibers affect us? Answer to this question still remains a mystery, as we lack the information for making any exact conclusions. Nevertheless, even the knowledge we have now gives us enough material to conclude that the presence of microplastic particles and fibers in our environment should be reduced as much as possible.
How to reduce microfiber output in the environment?
The most effective way to reduce the number of plastic microfibers in the environment is to avoid using synthetic materials and to buy fewer clothes. The main way microfibers enter the environment is through the washing machine. There are a few steps you can take to optimize your washing cycles to produce less microfiber pollution:
- Reduce rotation speed – vigorous rotation includes a great deal of friction, consequently causing a great number of fibers to break and release microplastics into the water;
- Wash less frequently – wait until you can utilize the entire capacity of your washing machine;
- Use a front-load washing machine – top-load machines produce 7 times more microfibers compared to front-load machines;
- Liquid soap and cold water – switching to liquid laundry soap and washing clothes at a lower temperature whenever possible conserves the material more successfully, so fewer fibers will shed;
- Separate the textiles – heavy textiles should be washed separately from light textiles to reduce friction and shedding;
- Air drying – tumble dryers also cause a great number of microfibers to be released, so it is best if the clothes are air-dried;
- Fiber-collecting devices – there are a few products currently available on the market, like bags and filters that are attached to washers, that can at least partially reduce the amount of microfiber output but are still not effective enough to solve the problem.
Following these steps will ensure that the output of microfibers from your washing machine will remain as small as possible. Let’s look into a few more methods, as washing isn’t the only way plastic microfibers end up in the environment. Wearing is also an important factor, as it includes a lot of friction and causes significant amounts of fibers to be released into the air. Considering how much time we spend inside, it is no wonder that indoor environments are full of microfiber dust. Carpets are also significant contributors to indoor air contamination. Walking on them causes friction, and because they are often made of synthetic materials, they release plastic microfibers. Carpets also collect a lot of dust, so it is best to avoid them altogether. Regular vacuuming and cleaning can also help in reducing the amount of microfiber dust, but why treat the symptoms when you can treat the cause? Avoid the use of synthetic materials and pick natural products for your home and your clothes whenever possible. While it is true that natural materials also release microfibers, their fibers are biodegradable and cause no harm to the environment.
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