Plastic is everywhere. We are all readily aware of where plastic shows up in grocery or convenience stores – from bottles to packages and everything in between, but there is one place where plastic is highly pervasive that most people do not recognize: clothing. Synthetic materials like spandex and polyester are made from plastic microfibers. These microscopic fibers give clothing that stretchy, elastic quality that make them incredibly versatile and easy to maintain. The only problem, however, is that these microfibers don’t stay in clothing once they’re washed.
Have you ever noticed how washing synthetic clothing makes it lose its shape and eventually even start to get little holes? Well, that happens because every single time you wash that piece of clothing, it loses around 1,900 plastic microfibers. Yes, you read that right – every single time any spandex or polyester top goes through the laundry machine, nearly 2,000 tiny pieces of plastic are released from it.
What’s most disturbing about this fact is that these fibers are able to travel through the water system unchanged. Since they are so small, they easily bypass any conventional water filtration systems and end up in local waterways, and ultimately the ocean. When in the marine environment, microfibers are easily ingested by animals. In the North Pacific alone, between 12,000 and 24,000 tons of plastic end up being ingested by marine species a year. Worldwide, about 100,000 animals will unintentionally consume plastic – and it travels up the food chain. According to ecologist Mark Browne who conducted a study in 2011 to gauge the impact of microplastics, around one-third of the food we eat is contaminated with these tiny particles.
While this is all pretty daunting, the good news is that a solution might be in sight! Rachel Miller, co-founder of the New England-based ocean conservation group Rozalia Project, has developed a microfiber catcher that effectively gleans all of the microfibers in the laundry machine and captures them before they enter into the water stream. Miller explained to Boston Magazine the product is modeled after creatures like sea anemones, which allow water to pass through them while catching tiny plankton. After six to eight weeks, users send the ball back to the Rozalia Project where all of the plastic materials get safely disposed.
“This is a problem that we’re all part of, everyone who wears clothes and then washes them,” Miller said. “There’s no reason to feel bad about that. We didn’t know this was happening. But now we know, so we feel that we’re providing an opportunity to be part of the solution — and an easy way.”
Unfortunately, the product is not yet available, but will be released next spring and is expected to cost around $20-25. In the meantime, however, we can all work to reduce the amount of microfiber pollution we generate by washing all synthetic clothing sparingly and looking for natural materials when purchasing any new clothing. For other ways to learn how to cut your plastic footprint, join One Green Planet’s #CrushPlastic campaign.