Without synthetic, plasticky fabrics, we’d have no yoga pants for yoga-ing, no stretchy socks, no water-wicking sweatshirts. We may wear these plastic-infused clothes once, throw them in the washing machine, and repeat, each cycle shedding perhaps 100,000 synthetic fibers. Many of the particles end up getting dumped into rivers and oceans, where they’re embedding in animals and swirling in the water column and sticking in sediment—virtually immortal artifacts forour distant descendants to one day dig up.
In 2015, Congress banned microbeads, those little bits of plastic used in face scrubs that companies thought would be A-okay for the environment,but instead ended up tainting the worldso thoroughly that the public shamed the industry to change. In the short few years since then, more and more research has shown just how pervasive other microplastic pollution has become: Bits of synthetic fiber like polyester have been blowing to thetops of mountainsandinto the Arcticand washing into watersheds like the San Francisco Bay, which collects7 trillion microplastic particles every year. You’re drinkinga good amount of the stuff, in fact.
The time has come to make microfibers the new microbeads. But keeping the tiny plastics out of the environment won’t be so easy as an outright ban—synthetic textiles, like plastics in general, are now indispensable in modern life. Instead, we’ve got to get smarter about synthetic clothing, demanding action from the fashion industry as well as manufacturers of washing machines. The movement has begun, so get ready to hear a lot more of the word “shedability.”
“It’s reaching a crescendo with every new study that comes out that shows that microplastics are in our food, in our drinking water,” says Nick Lapis, director of advocacy for Californians Against Waste. “I think it’s going to reach a point of no return where people say I don’t want to be consuming plastic, and I think we’re close to there.”
To get a sense of the scale of this problem, let’s bring it down to a single city: Toronto.One studycalculated that a single load of laundry might shed 91,000 to 138,000 microfibers. The city’s 1.2 million households do an annual average of 219 loads. So each year, Toronto could be washing 23 to 36 trillion microfibers into its wastewater. True, wastewater treatment sequesters somewhere between 83 to 99.9 percent of microplastics from the input, depending on what facility and what study you’re looking at, but that would still mean 234 to 356 billion microfibers flowing into the environment each year from one city.
And the problem is getting worse. The rise of so-called fast fashion—cheap, crappy clothing meant to last but a moment—has flooded the market with garments that easily fray and more readily shed synthetic fibers. In 1950, the textile and clothing industries used about 2 million tons of synthetic materials; by 2010 it had climbed to 50 million tons. Stretchy jeans, socks, undies—you name it, and it’s probably made at least partly of synthetic materials.
A picture is still emerging of what all this microplastic pollution amounts to. In August,the WHO reportedthat we’re all drinking heaps of microplastics. It’s still too early to say that’s a bad thing, but it’s also too early to say it’snota bad thing.
“One of the challenges is demonstrating there actually is harm from microfibers,” says Marcus Eriksen, research director of the 5 Gyres Institute. “If you can’t show definitive proof that this causes pain to someone, people are going to say, Why change? I’ve always argued that it’s so ubiquitous that we really don’t have the luxury of waiting until a problem happens.”
So what to do? Banishing fast fashion would be an easy fix, but that’s far from feasible. A better option is to pressure the industry to move away from high-shedability clothes where it can, returning to quality goods that resist fraying. (Requests for comment sent to the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the United States Fashion Industry Association were not returned.)
We can also capture the microfibers before they leave our homes.A study earlier this yearfound that the Lint LUV-R filter, which mounts to a wall next to your washing machine and connects to the discharge hose, captures an average of 87 percent of microfibers, about the same efficacy of a wastewater treatment plant. The authors note that if every household in Toronto had such a filter, it’d prevent 20 to 31 trillion fibers from entering the city’s wastewater.
You can also buyspecial bagsto wash your clothes in, or use awashing machine ballthat grabs the fibers. Better yet, we can pressure manufacturers of washing machines to install filters in every washing machine that leaves the factory from here on out.
Capturing those fibersbeforethey get to the facility and disposing of them properly is important because facilities haven’t been consciously filtering out microfibers. Instead, the treatment process ends up sequestering microfibers in the sludge that’s separated from the wastewater. This sludge is often spread as fertilizer on fields, and from there the microfibers either wash into rivers or dry out in the field and blow away. A complementary tactic to home filtering would be to retrofit our wastewater treatment facilities to more deliberately sequester microfibers: To that end, a clever 18-year-old won this year’s Google Science Fair with a liquidthat attracts microplastics like a magnet.
Where matters will get tricky, and where the campaign to stop microfiber pollution deviates from the swift and effective campaign to ban microbeads, is that microbeads were stupid and unnecessary to begin with, and microfibers are both omnipresent and useful. Corporations embraced microbeads because they were the cheapest way to make skin exfoliants, and the people rose up to protest the practice. “Getting rid of something that is both new and totally unnecessary was a lot easier,” says Lapis, of Californians Against Waste. “I think the problem with microfibers is we all like our polyester clothing.”
But the good news, Lapis says, is that the movement to mitigate microfiber pollution already has momentum. The opposition from industry is well-funded, but constituents are increasingly freaked out about macroplastics like single-use bags ending up in sea turtle stomachs, as well as the mounting evidence that microplastics are in our food and water and even the air we breathe.
“I think we’re going to look back on this moment and think it’s weird that first of all, you can make a product that sheds any amount of plastic microfibers, that there’s no limit to that,” Lapis says. “And secondly, I think the idea of washing machines not having filters is going to seem silly, just like it would be weird for a car to not have a muffler or for a dryer to not have a lint trap.”
It’s these kind of “upstream” mitigation measures that scientists and policymakers are increasingly turning to, instead ofthe follyof trying to scoop up innumerable pieces of plastic from the ocean. “There’s something so much cheaper and accessible about fixing the problem at your own washing machine instead of once it’s out thousands of miles in the middle of the Pacific,” says Scripps oceanographer Jennifer Brandon, who studies microplastics. “It’s definitely the way scientists are trying to turn some of the policies and taxes and all those kinds of things to stop it before we’re having to clean it out of these remote islands.”