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What Is Microfiber Pollution? 

  • 5 min read

Plastic pollution and the growing signs of its damaging impact is becoming more apparent in our lives. However, not all plastic pollution is visible to the naked eye. You may not have ever imagined that plastic pollution is being added to the environment every time we wash our clothes, but alarmingly, it is. These unseen pollutants are called microfibers, and our clothing is a major source of them. 

What Are Microfibers?

Microfibers are tiny strands of plastic, most smaller than we can see, that shed from synthetic clothing during washing. These microfibers release from the synthetic clothing they were a part of in the washing machine and find their way down the drain as part of wastewater and ultimately end up in our rivers, lakes, and oceans. With approximately 60%-70% of our clothing made with synthetic materials such as polyester, acrylic, rayon, and nylon, microfiber pollution presents a severe environmental problem. Polyesters make up the bulk of synthetic materials, with an estimated 60% of the total synthetic materials used in clothing - fleece, for example, is made with polyester. Independent studies into microfibers have shown that your average fleece jacket could be releasing up to 250,000 microfiber particles per wash. 

Independent studies into microfibers have shown that your average fleece jacket could be releasing up to 250,000 microfiber particles per wash.

How Do Microfibers Impact The Environment

Historically, microfiber pollution has flown under the radar as it was so hard to see, and frankly, we weren’t looking for it. However, now as we begin to better understand this pollutant’s scale, the environmental impact is becoming more apparent. Once microfibers have shed from clothing and made their way into our water systems, they immediately contaminate the environment. According to scientists, microfibers are one of the most significant sources of plastic pollution in the ocean. Here, one problem amongst many, is that fish and other wildlife consume these particles, poisoning them and in the process also allowing these plastic contaminants to make their way into the food chain and, yes, back to us. Globally, we ingest an average of 5 grams of plastic per week, approximately the weight of a credit card. Microfibers are playing a significant role in that. We are literally eating our clothing. Microfibers themselves are classified as a primary microplastic as they are a part of the microplastic family.  

Globally, we ingest an average of 5 grams of plastic per week, approximately the weight of a credit card.

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are another form of plastic pollution and are tiny plastic particles smaller than five millimeters in size. Microplastics are categorized into two categories: primary and secondary plastics.

A primary microplastic is a tiny plastic particle that was designed as such. Example of primary microplastics are glitter, microbeads (which have now been banned in the U.S.), and plastic pellets used commercially for larger plastic production.  Microfibers fall into this category. These are direct sources of plastic pollution. 

On the other hand, secondary microplastics result from larger plastic materials breaking apart into smaller and smaller pieces. These plastic pieces become classified a microplastics once they are under five millimeters in size.   

You can read more about microplastics here. What Are Microplastics? 

Microfibers, a primary plastic, from washed clothes contribute 35% of the total ocean plastic.

Textile Industry & Pollution

The textile industry is the second largest polluter in the world. A global shift towards fast fashion is driving the market growth and the increasing environmental impact. Synthetics, which are inexpensive and quick to produce, play a key role here too. Understandably, the market demand for synthetic is enormous and growing. In 2019 the market value of the synthetic fiber industry was nearly $150 billion and is currently anticipated to grow at 5% annually. By 2023 it will be a $175 billion industry. 

Ways to Stop Microfiber Pollution

Row of Washing Machines at Laundromat

While the challenges of microfiber pollution and its impact on the environment and sustainability are significant, there is good news. As our understanding of microfiber pollution increases, we are finding new ways that each of us can play a part in reducing it. Here are six easy ways to help reduce microfibers. 

Choose Plastic Free Non-Synthetic Clothing

One of the reasons why synthetics have become so popular in clothing is because of their performance attributes. However, we can drastically reduce the amount of synthetic clothing we purchase. Next time you need to buy clothing, consider an environmentally friendly alternative made with natural fibers. Brands like U.S. based The Classic T-Shirt Company make garments with 100% organic cotton and are a great synthetic-free option. Reducing the amount of clothing we own containing synthetic fibers is a great way to help reduce microfiber pollution at the source. 

Do Full Loads Of Washing

Another way to reduce the shedding of microfibers is by filling the washing machine to the maximum. By doing full loads of laundry, the clothes experience less friction, thus shedding fewer microfibers. Of course, by doing full loads of laundry, you are also reducing unnecessary water waste. 

Wash On Cooler Temperatures

Though the brand also mentions the maximum level of temperature during washing, negligence is still widespread. Washing at a high temperature not only damages the fibers, but the rate of microfiber shedding also increases. There is also the extra cost of heating the water, which places additional pressure on the environment. Most detergents are designed to operate and be equally effective on cool temperature settings. Click here to learn about eco-friendly washing detergent.  

Only Wash Clothes When Needed

It is common for many people to wash their clothes frequently, even when there may not be a need. If you can wear a garment multiple times, this will help reduce the environmental impact of washing. Frequent washing, especially synthetic garments, not only releases more primary microplastics but also a significant loss of many other resources like detergents, water, and electricity. Ask yourself whether or not a garment needs to be washed or whether you can wear it again. 

Front Loading Washing Machines

Next time you are in the market for a new washing machine, consider purchasing a front loading machine instead of a top loader. Studies have shown that front-loading style washing machines produce less microplastic pollution than their top-loading counterparts. 

Use of Cora Ball

A great solution for tackling the problem of microfiber pollution is to catch them at the source. The Cora Ball is an awesome hands-off solution for reducing microfiber pollution. The Cora Ball, a laundry ball, is designed to be tossed into your washing machine, where it will cycle about with the wash catching microfibers. The Cora Ball has been independently reviewed and shown to reduce microfiber waste by up to 31%. Adding a Cora Ball into your washing machine is an easy step that adds up to making a big difference. To learn more about the Cora Ball and the work done to help reduce microplastics, check out our podcast Exploring the Impact of Microplastic & Microfiber Pollution with Rozalia ProjectThe Cora Ball can be purchased at Lochtree or at similar zero-waste shops where eco-friendly products are sold. 

Parting Thoughts

The tale of microfiber pollution and its impact on the environment is a topic we are quickly becoming familiar with. While the scale of the problem is significant and challenges addressing it are very real, we can all play a part in helping to protect the environment. A lot of little changes do add up to make a big difference. Addressing simple changes like examining how your clothing is made, washing clothes on low-temperature settings, washing with full loads, washing when needed, using a Cora Ball and considering our washing equipment make a difference. Protecting the environment for generations to come must continue to be a priority for all of us as we look for ways to live more sustainably. 

Written by Henry Palmer

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