Microfibers in the Ocean

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Microfibers in the Ocean, by Julia Hill

From single-use water bottles to microbeads from our facial cleansers, plastics find their way into our waters through a variety of means. One plastic pollutant that is lesser known, but gaining more and more awareness is microfibers. These tiny strands of plastic are found in synthetic fabrics such as polyester and rayon and, while synthetics were formerly reserved solely for high performance athletic gear, they now make up more than 60% of all clothing manufactured. With more and more everyday clothing containing these plastic fibers it’s no wonder that an estimated 1.7 million tons of microfibers are released into the ocean each year. Current studies show that microfibers are now the single largest contributor to watershed plastic pollution and one of the most prevalent forms of plastic pollution in our oceans.

How microfibers reach our oceans

When synthetic clothing such as fleeces or yoga pants is washed, microfibers are released from the fabric and rinsed away with the washing water. They then make their way to water treatment centers where, due to their small size, a majority escape through the cleansing process and are released directly back into our waterways. Those that are captured in treatment centers become part of a muddy mass that is applied to fields as fertilizer. Carried by rivers, rain, and flood, these microfibers then end up in our oceans where they’re further dispersed by tides and currents or settle on the ocean floor.

 © The Story of Stuff  

 © The Story of Stuff  

Impacts on ecosystems

Once in the ocean, microfibers act as sponges, soaking up and transporting pollutants such as pesticides, industrial chemicals, and oil. These toxic fibers, whether found on the ocean floor or floating in the water column, are often ingested by ocean creatures such as clams, mussels, and fish causing negative health effects like liver toxicity. With these microfibers rapidly making their way through the oceanic food chain, plastic- and toxin-ridden fish regularly end up on our dinner plates.

What is currently being done and how we can help

The simplest ways to prevent microfiber pollution at home are to purchase clothing made from natural products such as wool or cotton and high quality synthetics that last longer and require less frequent washing. When washing your synthetics, use specialized garment bags and machine filters that catch microfibers and prevent them from entering our water supply. Companies like Patagonia are leading the way by researching ways to construct more durable synthetic fabrics and providing customers with fabric care instructions. As with any other plastic pollution, it is important for individuals to be more mindful of the products they purchase and how they impact our shared environment.