Putting poison in the pantry: Plastic microfibres

All sorts of plastic get into waterways, pollute the ocean and poison sealife. There is growing awareness about the damage caused by plastic bag pollution and microbead pollution, but scientists have shown that much of the plastic in the ocean is actually plastic microfibres. In some waterways they make up close to three quarters of the plastic pollution.

Plastic “is like a little sponge for … chemicals”. Poisons stick to the outside of plastic. The smaller the pieces of plastic the more chemicals can stick to them. This is because the more bits a piece of plastic is broken into, the more outside surface there is for chemicals to stick to. Dr Chelsea Rochman found a chemical that was banned in the USA in the 1970s (DDT) on every piece of plastic she took out of the ocean. (DDT is still used in certain circumstances, but much less than before its hazards were known.)

Shellfish eats plastic, little fish eats shellfish and big fish eats little fish. The toxins of concern that stick to plastic don’t break down easily. Each time these poisons go up the food chain they get more concentrated.

Where do these microfibres in the ocean come from? They come from washing synthetic clothes. Addressing this problem will be a mammoth task, because synthetic clothes are so common.

About 0.7 grams of plastic microfibre end up in rivers, lakes and oceans when a polar fleece jacket is washed (there are about 30 grams in an ounce). People eat seafood that has eaten microfibres. These and other research findings are summarised in Microfiber Pollution and the Apparel Industry from the University of California Santa Barbera.

What can be done? Natural fibres were used for thousands of years before synthetic fibres were invented, but according to the Catalyst video, around 2/3 of our clothes are now synthetic. Plastic microfibres would be much harder to phase out than microbeads. Some solutions have been suggested, such as adding filters to washing machines, waterless washing machines, gadgets that catch the fibres in the wash, and new types of synthetic fibre.

Governments and industry have started to phase out microbeads, but they will have to become more aware of microfibre pollution if the plastic pollution problem is going to be solved. Consumers can play a role too, in the choices they make and in spreading awareness. Two advocacy groups, Plastic Soup Foundation and Parley for the Oceans, have started a campaign to raise awareness. In the clothing industry, Patagonia is supporting research by scientists at University of California Santa Barbera into the problem.

It’s not just seafood. Microfibres are also found on land. What’s in your food?

Published research:

Chelsea Rochman et al., University of California Davis 2015. Anthropogenic debris in seafood: Plastic debris and fibers from textiles in fish and bivalves sold for human consumption. Nature Scientific Reports 5, Article number 14340. http://www.nature.com/articles/srep14340 

Mark Browne et al., University of New South Wales 2011. Accumulation of Microplastic on Shorelines Woldwide: Sources and Sinks. Environ. Sci. Technol., 2011, 45 (21), pp 9175–9179 http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es201811s

Niko Hartline et al., University of California Santa Barbera 2016. Microfiber Masses Recovered from Conventional Machine Washing of New or Aged Garments. Environ. Sci. Technol., 2016, 5021 pp 11532–11538 http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.est.6b03045

Other links:

Microfiber pollution and the apparel industryresearch summary (research. http://brenmicroplastics.weebly.com/project-findings.html) and a literature review (http://brenmicroplastics.weebly.com/microplastics-pollution.html) of other