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July 10, 2020

What are microplastics and microfibers? 

As you might have heard (and as our ambassador Alice Forest explains in this awesome booklet) microplastics are sometimes the result of larger pieces of plastic continuously breaking down (often after being discarded and exposed to the elements) until they’re so tiny that we can’t even see them with the naked eye. This process is called fragmentation, and you’ll be familiar with it if you’ve ever picked up a piece of ocean plastic and watched it disintegrate in your hand. 

However, a large percentage of microplastics don’t enter the sea this way at all. In fact, they come from household and industrial products.

Microfibers are the teeny, tiny fibers that are released by synthetic fabrics. When clothing items are being washed, these fibres escape into the waterways. Essentially, microfibres are a type of microplastic, and microfibers from synthetic clothes represent 35 per cent of microplastics found in the ocean. 

Microfiber pollution - a fish swims through plastic-polluted water

Why are they bad? 

Microplastics (including microfibers and microbeads, which we often see in cosmetic products) are travelling into our oceans and rivers in a big way.

Despite the fact that they’re so tiny, these plastics are causing big issues. It’s actually because they’re so tiny that they’re causing problems: the filters used at water treatment plants aren’t able to catch them, so they slip undetected into our waterways. To put things into perspective, a single piece of clothing can release around 700,000 fibers in one wash.

Microfiber pollution - a close-up image of a washing machine in motion

This is a problem for a few reasons. Firstly, microplastics are very good at soaking up toxins in the environment around them, and when marine creatures unwittingly consume these little morsels, they’re ingesting a whole heap of dangerous chemicals and poisoning the food chain in the process. Eating plastics can also mean that fish and other marine life fill their bellies so that they can’t take in real food properly, which may lead to stunted growth or even starvation.

And it’s not just sea creatures that are affected. If we eat fish (or one of the other 170 types of seafood found to contain plastic, according to Greenpeace), then we’re also ingesting these toxic pieces of plastic. Plus, research has shown that inhaling microfibers (something we do every hour of the day), leads to inflammation of the lungs and may contribute to asthma attacks and lung cancer. We also know that microfibers are literally raining from the sky.

Microfiber pollution - an image of earthy-toned garments hanging from a clothes rack

What can we do?

The best thing would be to see worldwide change when it comes to plastic usage and the fashion industry, which is responsible for the mass production of synthetic pieces. We also need to look at our own habits and behaviours, however — including our participation in “throw-away” culture and the fast fashion movement. There are a number of things we can do personally to help minimise our contribution to this serious problem. 

  • Avoid single use plastics wherever possible
  • Recycle properly (but refuse and reuse first)
  • Choose not to buy synthetic clothing (or items such as microfiber towels). Buy clothes that are made of natural fibers and built to last instead. Linen and hemp are the most sustainable options, but organic cotton, tencel, wool and bamboo are also better choices than synthetic.
  • Do larger loads of washing (this will mean less friction between the clothes, which means fewer microfibers being released)
  • Wash your clothes less frequently
  • Wash your clothes on a cooler temperature cycle
  • Purchase a Guppyfriend to reduce microfibers in the wash

Microfiber pollution - an image of hand opening an aluminium tin of sunscreen in the foreground, and a blurry beach in the background

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