Microplastics are a growing concern in fashion — and it’s for good reason.
The top two leading causes of microplastic pollution are abrasion of tires while driving and the washing of synthetic fabrics. [Source: Primary Microplastics in the Oceans, IUCN]
In fact, washing synthetic fabrics is the cause of an estimated 35% of microplastic pollution.
How is this possible?
Well, during washing, clothes spin around and rub against each other which causes the shedding of tiny little microfibers. The fibers end up in wastewater systems, going into the air and in waterways, often eventually ending up in oceans.
When those clothes (or bedding and other textiles) are made of synthetic plastic fabrics like polyester or nylon, those microfibers can also be considered microplastics.
And just like other plastics, plastic fabrics and plastic microfibers (microplastics) do not biodegrade.
Just how bad is it?
Nature Journal estimates that about 124 to 308 mg of microfibers are released per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of washed fabric depending on the fabric/type of garment. That’s the equivalent of 640,000 – 1.5 million microfibers per kg (2.2 lbs).
And unfortunately, the majority of clothing produced today is made up of synthetic fabrics — over 60% to be exact.
The production of polyester alone (the most popular synthetic fabric) was estimated at 52 million metric tons in 2016.
And, the Ellen MacArthur foundation reports that producing plastic-based fibers for textiles uses an estimated 342 million barrels of oil every year.
How to Help Stop Microplastics
So, we’ve established the clear link between synthetic garments and microplastics. What can we do about it?
1. Prioritize eco-conscious natural fibers when buying new.
While items like swimwear and activewear are largely made of synthetic fabrics (even more eco-friendly options are made from recycled synthetics), it is much easier to find organic & low-impact natural fiber versions of most other types of garments!
This is the first and potentially most important step in my opinion, because studies have found that even just wearing clothes can release microfibers.
Although industrially-grown cotton is grown in a water-intensive and chemical-intensive way, other natural fibers to choose include hemp, linen, organic cotton, and jute.
Cellulose fibers, or fibers made from tree pulp, are also a natural choice, but these are all-too-often sourced from old-growth and endangered forests.
Plus they can be processed and produced with potentially toxic chemicals. Not to mention, increasing demand for cellulose materials means cutting down more trees.
The best cellulose fibers are those from Lenzing, like Tencel, because the company sources from responsibly-managed forests and produced with a closed-loop system that reuses solvents.
This also counts for secondhand! You can also try to prioritize choosing natural fibers when browsing pre-loved pieces.
2. Wash your clothes less.
An eco-friendly switch that saves money and time too? I’ll take it.
Washing and drying machines use a TON of electricity. This means lots of CO2 emissions (depending on your home’s energy source) and expensive utility bills.
By washing less, you will be saving money on your monthly bills and your clothes will last much longer.
If you’re worried about smells, check out this post on getting smells out of clothes without washing them.
3) Wash on cold.
Not only does this save on carbon emissions, but since cold water is gentler on clothing and causes them to break down less, meaning this could reduce microfiber release.
You might also see an “eco” mode on your washer. If you have to enter the temperature, select something around 30 degrees Celsius or 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
4. Wash mindfully.
In addition to washing less and washing on cold, there are a few other considerations that can minimize the shedding of microfibers.
The key thing to keep in mind here is to minimize friction and abrasion of textiles.
- Separate soft and rough textiles (these harder textiles can rub against the more delicate ones and cause more abrasion and microfiber shedding).
- Similarly, do not wash items like shoes with your clothes.
- Use a lower spin setting, again to minimize abrasion.
5. Air dry your clothes.
It’s best to air dry our clothes rather than machine drying them for a number of reasons (less energy, less CO2 emissions, less impact on our clothes)…
But another reason is that it could help minimize microfiber release.
Some sources suggest that microfibers could be released in the dryer. Yikes!
If you do machine dry any synthetic textiles, just make sure that you dispose of the lint that collects in your filter from your dryer into the trash. (I think this is pretty common anyways!)
Do not put that lint into the compost — unless your load was 100% natural fibers — or down your sink/toilet of course!
6. Use a microfiber filter.
Chances are, you already own synthetic clothing.
It’s virtually impossible to have a synthetic-free wardrobe, especially if you are making the most of what you already have (and not discarding old fast fashion pieces) or if you shop secondhand.
While vintage clothes are often made from quality natural fabrics, in recent years, fast fashion has really flooded thrift stores.
So, then what do we do with the existing synthetic clothes we have?
There are actually quite a few options for microfiber filters out in the market currently.
Simply put your clothes into these bags and toss them in your wash! I have found that 3 bags is a good amount for a full load, though it depends on your washing machine.
Guppyfriend claims that their bags collect about 90% of microfibers.
I personally use Guppyfriend Washing Bags and it does take an extra minute to put your clothes in the bag, but they’re easy to use!
The Cora Ball
You could also find Cora Balls on EarthHero and use code CONSCIOUSLIFE for 10% off your order (affiliate link).
This method is easier than other options. You simply throw in the Cora Ball to your load without having to put the clothes into bags or anything.
However, the big caveat here is that they are less effective. One study found that the Cora Ball collects about 26% of microfibers.
Microfiber filter for washer
If you have your own washing machine and own your home or are able to do this in your rental, you can install a microfiber filter.
Looking at the comments, it seems like microfiber filters still have a ways to go when it comes to user friendliness, but they do seem to be effective.
These will trap the microfibers before they enter the water. While there isn’t really a good place for these microfibers, you can at least through them in the trash so they don’t end up in waterways.
This is why I said at the beginning that choosing natural fabrics first is always a priority when shopping for new or secondhand! Because even once we prevent the microplastics from entering the wastewater systems, there really is still nowhere good for them to go…
7. Advocate for industry action.
The reality is that there’s only so much we can do as individuals washing our own clothes. While these are fantastic steps for now, we need to be pushing for more change longer term.
You don’t have to go this alone, though!
There are plenty of organizations educating on this issue and pushing for industry collaboration and regulatory action.
Check out these organizations fighting microplastic pollution:
- What’s In My Wash? (UK based)
- Ocean Clean Wash (part of Netherlands-based Plastic Soup Foundation)
- STOP! Micro Waste (Germany based)
- eXXpedition (US based)
- Surfrider Foundation (US based)
- Microfibre Consortium (UK based)
The Surfrider Foundation has a pretty in-depth post on some big-scale solutions we could implement to reduce microplastic pollution, such as urging wastewater treatment facilities to upgrade their filtration systems.
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