What's the deal with Microplastics?
Updated: Sep 29
Written by Renuka Ramanujam
With an era of sustainability in fashion coming to the forefront, we often hear about consumption of synthetic materials and plastics as culprits to a large part of the pollution that the planet is experiencing. The evidence is in the pictures; the mountains of landfill that grow worldwide, on land and even in our oceans as demonstrated by the presence of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Yet, the problem goes beyond what we can see, into something actually very small: Microplastics.
What are microplastics? As the name suggests, they are indeed, tiny pieces of plastic, but to be specific, they are plastic particles that are smaller than 5 millimetres. We can then go further and group them into primary and secondary microplastics. Primary microplastics are plastics that are intentionally made that small; we're talking about glitter, the microbeads you see in that toothpaste or body scrub, but also in larger industrial applications such as resin pellets and certain varieties of paint. Secondary microplastics exist as a result of fragmentation. We've been told extensively that plastic takes many years to degrade, and it does so by breaking down into smaller fragments. With help from UV light, the plastic continues to break down, past the point of visibility to the naked eye - which is where things get to be dangerous.
In recent decades we have seen many great leaps into material innovation surrounding the re-use of plastic especially for the fashion industry; PET bottles and plastic fishing nets have been spun into fibres to be woven into garments and shoes; Adidas' collaboration with Parley, creating trainers made from ocean plastic is one such example, as well as polar fleece which is often partially derived from PET. In theory, this delays the plastic from ending up in landfill so imminently and redirects waste into another product that will hopefully be utilized for an extended period of time. However, upon closer inspection of this process, we come to the issue of microfibres. With the advent of fast fashion and even just in the athleisure/sportswear industry, much of our clothes are made from synthetic materials, such as polyester, polyamide, nylon and elastane to name a few. As with plastic, these are petroleum based and therefore suffer the same issue of biodegradability; when we wash these synthetic garments in our washing machines, they shed single strands (again, often invisible to the naked eye). These strands are so fine that they are often not caught by the filtration and water treatment systems before heading out to the oceans.
These small plastic fibres also have the characteristic of accumulating pollutants and chemicals on their surface; when animals eat these microfibres, the toxic chemicals on the surface of the fibre leach into their bodies. Marine life sometimes actively mistake the fibres for food, and so feel full, but of course, lack the nutrients they need; this form of starvation, alongside the accidental ingestion of even smaller fibres, has shown to cause stress and a reduced rate of reproduction in marine life. These plastics also come back to us when we eat seafood. The effects on humans however are not yet confirmed.
Beyond fashion, a recent study has also shown that wind borne microplastics, are also a large, if not the highest contributor to the microplastic pollution in our oceans - particles produced by tyres and break pads on our roads as they wear down, allow for microplastics to be present in more remote natural regions. Taking all of this into account, how do we look at this challenge of fibres and fragments and what can be done to reduce our production and intake of them?
Here are a few steps:
1. Wash our clothes less
We've all been guilty of chucking our clothes in our laundry basket after a single use. It could be well worth our while to just hang and air out our clothes if we haven't been sweating profusely in them/if they don't smell terrible. A single domestic washload of the same type of fibre can release potentially 700,000 fibres in a go. Think about how much can be saved just by cutting down a few washes here and there!
2. When you do wash, help your washing machine out!
Although water treatment facilities can filter a slight amount of fibres, we can do more to help reduce the number of fibres out there. Nifty innovations like the Guppyfriend washbags and Cora balls are designed to catch and contain these microfibres in your own laundry load at home, where you can collect and dispose of your own microfibres as you would with household trash to avoid them going to our waterways. As garments get older, microfibres are released in larger quantities as the textile becomes weaker. The Guppyfriend bags are soft and reduce the abrasion that contributes to fibre loss, extending the lifecycle of your garment, and keeping it away from landfill for longer - a triple win! Air drying your laundry is also a great way to go - spin dryers are also an opportunity for microfibres to release.
3. Choose your fibres carefully
Studies have found that the type of fibre has a major impact on the quantity of microfibres released. Compared to a poly-cotton blend fabric, a polyester fabric releases almost double the amount of microfibres, with an acrylic fabric releasing 4 to 5 times the amount. Raincoats are not to be forgotten here, with the waterproof coatings often made from toxic chemicals that also come off in a wash. Natural fibres are generally less impactful, (they still shed, however, lack the pollutant accumulative characteristic of microplastics) and should be used
where they can to replace synthetics. However there is nuance to this; in other aspects of sustainability, synthetics can be 'cleaner' - both linen and cotton as we know consume a vast amount of water and is also very energy intensive to produce. That being said, there are a ton of great natural material alternatives out there to explore that consider, with leather alternatives made of pineapple, a 'bio-polyester' made from fermented food waste and yarns grown from algae, as well as natural bio-oil waterproof coatings. More companies are starting to use these in their collections, so often times a quick look at the label can help you make a slightly more informed decision.
3. Buy less
A lot of the issue with microplastics is the sheer volume of their presence. By buying and throwing away less, we prevent an opportunity to create more microplastics.
All in all, we can all take some small steps to tackle the spread of microplastics. Environmental groups are stepping in too, with microbeads having been banned in countries including the UK, Canada and New Zealand. As for the future of polyester in fashion and beyond, it's important to be critical but logical. It is not as simple as ridding ourselves of them altogether as natural fibres are not without their own issues - there are certain applications where natural fibres cannot compete with synthetics, particularly in more technical fabrics required for sportswear. In the same way that synthetics were developed as an innovation to better our lives, we can shape them further to prevent fibre loss in
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