Around 85% of man-made debris found on shorelines is made up of microfibers!
That was a fairly hard to believe statistic for me at first, but it’s actually the findings of a 2011 study that I came across last week!
I mean, we’ve all seen the shocking state of plastic pollution in our oceans, whether that’s in pictures or with our own eyes… From straws stuck up turtles’ noses, to the unnatural contents of a whale’s stomach causing it to starve to death, we’ve also seen the damage done by these plastics in the natural environment and just how important it is that we tackle it… We may already be doing what we can to recycle and, better yet, reduce our consumption of plastics. But, little did we know that there is also something else at work here the whole time… Tiny plastic microfibres!
After learning a bit more about microfibers, I wanted to dig into what they actually are, what the issue is and what can be done about them!
Here's our complete guide to plastic microfiber pollution, why it's an issue and what can be done about it!
What Are Microfibers? And What’s The Issue With Them?
What we’re really talking about here are microscopic strands of plastic! These synthetic thread like fibers can quite easily disrupt fragile eco systems and even enter the food chain! Typically, microplastics are categorised as being under 5mm in size, but microfibers are actually thinner than a human hair! And, because these fibers are so small, they are often ingested by more forms of marine life compared to that which a larger piece of plastic would, posing a slightly different threat…
Microfibers may not be choking cetaceans and sea birds, but they can effect marine life in one of it’s more basic forms - plankton. Microfibers can more widely work their way up the food chain through plankton, and they’ve already been found in seafood such as mussels and in fish being sold at markets!
Like other plastics, microfibers don’t biodegrade, and they’re toxic too!
Plastic quite simply is not at all natural and shouldn’t be in a natural environment. It may be able to break down into smaller pieces, but being originally processed from crude oil and petro-chemicals, smaller pieces of plastic is not a good thing when ingested or otherwise… Plastics can actually bind with other harmful pollutants such as pesticides and hormone disrupters, as well as sometimes carrying with them invasive species or even disease!
Safe to say, we weren’t all that surprised to learn that microfibers can create health problems in plankton and behavioural changes in crabs with all this considered!
Where Do Microfibers Come From?
For the most part, microfibers actually come from the clothes that we wear. Studies show that a single synthetic garment can shed more than 1900 fibers per wash, with both older and cheaper items of clothing being the worst offenders.
Clothing made from synthetic materials now accounts for the majority of all clothing being sold… All the while, cotton has dropped from around 80% at the start of the 20th century down to around 40% currently. And our use of synthetic textiles is only set to increase according to some, with some estimates saying that more than 98% of future fiber production will be synthetic. That is, if a change in attitude and demand doesn’t come, which it seemingly already has!
Natural vs Synthetic!
Whether they’re made from natural or synthetic material, the clothes that we wear can take a toll on the planet, using and perhaps even wasting natural resources. A cotton tshirt for example, can still contain harsh chemicals, traces of pesticides and dyes that are harmful to eco systems.
Because of all this, and of course being inexpensive to produce, polyester really came to save the day when it first came about. But plastic is now considered to be not so eco-friendly after all… It’s the fact that plastics are entering and effecting natural eco systems that is probably the main concern here, but they are also adding to landfills at a worrying rate.
So, is the argument as simple as natural vs synthetic? No, not exactly. But plastics and synthetic fabrics definitely have significant drawbacks... Drawbacks that (in our opinion) outweigh the positives.
Fight Fast Fashion!
A larger issue here may in fact be the consumeristic cycle that the fashion industry puts us in, and the way that we now view our clothing…
On a weekly basis, we are presented with fashionable new trends and desirable new designs, which creates the notion that old clothes can only be worn once and disposed of when worn, and this is only helped by the affordable price tags too. It’s an obvious, ever-growing issue whether natural or synthetic material is used, but it’s because production is done so cheap and quick that results in low quality garments that are more likely to shed, and sometimes even designed to fall apart after only a few wears.
A More Eco-Friendly Option!
The problem with fast fashion is very much apparent when compared to more eco-conscious companies such as Teemill, who we actually work with for By The Compass’ clothing.
Teemill’s ethos is all things eco-friendly, from solar powered factories to completely organic cotton and a renewable source of water from rainfall. One of their main aims is to really slow down fast fashion with an emphasis on quality garments, print on demand designs and an all-ethical production line. They’ve even developed an innovative process of recycling old, worn out clothing into all new clothing - meaning less required resources, no need for clothing to end up in landfill and a ‘closed-loop’ end result.
So, is well made, organic cotton, or even recycled cotton the answer? At the moment, it certainly seems like the logical choice to us, whilst other natural materials such as bamboo or hemp seem promising too. But how do we remove synthetic clothing from our wardrobe and out of circulation in an eco-friendly way?
What Can Be Done About Our Pre-Owned Polyester Clothes?
Donating the clothes you don’t want anymore may often seem like the right way to go, but won’t that just mean someone else ends up washing them and creating microfibers? Recycling them might mean new items are made from them, but if they’re made into more clothing then won’t that just restart the cycle of creating microfibers as well? Sending them to landfill certainly doesn’t seem like an eco-friendly answer here either… So why not repurpose them in one way or another? This could mean making a blanket, cushion covers or a tote bag? Assuming that they aren’t thrown into the wash, then we think that they should be fine!
But, even still, this doesn’t quite do enough to address the question “how to we reduce microfibres from entering the environment”?
What if we don’t really want to part with some of our most loved polyester pieces or can’t quite walk away from performance/outdoor/activewear items of clothing? Well, then (and only then) might alternative items of clothing now being made from recycled plastic be appropriate… They may still shed microfibers, but here are some tips to help you create less of them!
How To Fight Plastic Microfibres! Top Tips!
Invest in higher quality clothing - cheaper clothing can shed more microfibers and will wear out a lot quicker. Buying quality clothing that’s built to last means having to buy less in the long run too.
Wash less frequently - washing and drying your clothes can cause them to wear out faster, which will create more microfibers.
Hand wash your synthetic clothing - be gentler on your clothes by hand washing them and significantly reduce how many microfibers are shed.
Hang dry your clothes - the heat and revolutions of a tumble dryer can cause your clothes to wear faster and cause more microfibers to shed.
Wash at a lower temperature - this has been shown to lead to less microfibers being shed and can help to prolong the life of your clothes.
Wash with less revs and choose shorter washes - this will also prolong the life of your clothes and lead to less microfibers being shed.
Invest in a GuppyFriend wash bag - a thin mesh bag that catches the microfibers when washing your clothes in it!
Alternatively, invest in a lint filter - both the Filtrol in the US and Planetcare filters in Europe are designed to catch lint in the waste water of your washing machine. However, we have personally not tried either.
Ensure you bin what’s collected in your lint traps if using a tumble dryer - likewise after every wash when using a GuppyFriend, Filtrol or Planetcare filters. This means the microfibers won’t get another chance to slip through.
Switch to a front loading washing machine versus a top loading machine - front loading machines cause less microfibers to be shed.
When using a washing machine, only wash full loads - this will result in less friction and less microfibers being shed.
One Last Thing!
Before your home is completely microfiber free, there are just a couple more swaps that you might need to make… Quite often, the items that we use to clean our home, kitchen and even ourselves can shed microfibers - from synthetic sponges and cloths, to the loofahs we may use in the shower! Switching these all out for all-natural alternatives such as a Maistic scrubber, Redecker pot brush or LoofCo washing up brush could also mean that those synthetic sponges stop pilling up in landfill for years to come. Alternatively, a smaller step might be to always opt for biodegradable sponges when shopping at a supermarket, or better yet, you could repurpose some old cotton clothing into nice, new cloths!