The shedding of microfiber from synthetic clothing is actually contributing to microplastic pollution in waterways. Every time you wash that pair of leggings, athletic wear, fleece, or other synthetic article of clothing, tiny particles of plastic make their way into wastewater. However, microplastics are nearly impossible to filter out and eventually make their way into coastal waterways and the ocean. Microplastics can have detrimental effects on marine life and can be magnified up the food web, leading to toxic concentrations in many of our own sources of food. Studies have shown that nearly 80% of fish from the U.S. has been contaminated with plastics from textiles.
“These fibers are a bit longer, and they’re loopy, and they can get caught in the digestive tract or in the stomach. They can cause an animal to starve or stop eating, or can actually loop around the organ… So you could say a whale with a big rope isn’t that different from plankton with a small fiber.”
Even though microplastics are so small (>1 mm across), their contribution on a world-wide scale can be significant, from plastic trash that makes its way to the sea, to microbeads found in beauty products, to the microfiber release during each laundry load. In a study by Browne et al. (2011), each garment can produce greater than 1900 fibers per wash. Multiply that by the number of synthetic garments you own and the number of times you do laundry per year. Then multiply that by every laundry-doing person. It becomes easy to see that the choice of alternative, natural fabrics could be a relatively simple switch for consumers that, in turn, could make a significant impact.
What can a conscientious shopper to do?
- Avoid fleece and other synthetic fabrics, if possible, especially for ‘leisure-wear’
- Opt for natural fibers
- Not buying synthetic clothes in excess
- Wear synthetics to the end of their life cycles before replacing
- Invest in a front-loading washing machine (top-loading machines had more than five times the microfiber shedding)
- Spot-wash clothes or clean by hand as much as possible
Download the Patagonia study poster on microplastics and textiles: