Monday, November 14, 2016

The Surprising Impacts of Synthetic Fibers

We estimate over 700,000 fibres could be released from an average 6 kg wash load of acrylic fabric. 
- Napper, I.E. and R.C. Thompson (2016, In Press). 

Helping the ocean starts with changing our clothes. The startling  quote above was from a recent article in Marine Pollution Bulletin. It adds to the growing body of work showing that even the clothing we wear can impact the ocean.

For the past few years, we've been studying microplastics with New Hampshire Sea Grant. Microplastics are plastics less than 5 mm in size.  They come from a variety of sources, including the breakdown of larger plastics. They can also come from our laundry. As we wash fabric, fibers flake off and get discharged in the machine's wastewater. It’s unclear what happens to the particles after that. Some get trapped during the wastewater treatment process, while others enter a local waterway during the discharge process.
While we don't fully understand this problem, recent studies show the impacts could be enormous. As mentioned above, washing acrylic fabric could produce up to 700,000 acrylic fibers during one load. Patagonia commissioned a study that found that washing synthetic jackets released on average 1.7 grams of microfibers per load.  In Slovenia, scientists estimated that if each resident used a fleece blanket (washed 4 times per year) and a fleece jacket (washed 8 times a year), they’d result in the emission of 317 pounds of synthetic fibers into the environment each year. And these are tiny fibers that don't weigh much individually! In that study, scientists found that tumble-drying resulted in a release of fibers 3.5 times higher than washing. So, there's one more reason to feel good about hanging your wash on the line.

What’s the problem?

Microplastics can be eaten by all members of the food chain, from tiny zooplankton to large whales.  In enough concentrations, plastics can hinder the ability of marine animals to function through hindering their ability to eat, blocking digestion or leaching chemicals into tissues.  We know crabs, mussels and fish eat microplastics. It doesn't take a huge leap to wonder about the effect of plastics on our own health if we eat these organisms.

Unfortunately, the impact doesn’t stop there. Microplastics can also host pathogenic bacteria and other pollutants that further contaminate waterways.

It’s an odd thing that we outdoorsy people, who can really benefit from synthetic fibers such as fleece and moisture-wicking garments, add to the litter problem every time we do a load of laundry.

As an organization, we’re trying to reduce our impact.  This has included switching our Blue Ocean Society apparel to more eco-friendly organic cotton. We also distributed organic cotton t-shirts instead of synthetic fabric running shirts at our Run for the Ocean 5K in June.  We’ve also been studying the prevalence of microplastics on the New Hampshire coastline.

Concerned about this problem? Here are some ways you can help:
  • Look at labels. Use clothing and bedding made of natural fibers such as cotton, wool, linen and hemp whenever possible.
  • Wash synthetic fabrics less frequently if possible, and air dry them.
  • Help us learn about microplastics on local beaches by volunteering to collect or sort sand samples.
  • Join a beach cleanup or conduct your own. Pick up tiny trash! 

More about our microplastics project, courtesy of NH Sea Grant:

References and Further Information: 
Note: this article first appeared in print in Blue Ocean Society's Fall 2016 edition of Sea Notes.

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