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How Plastics In Your Clothes Are Polluting The Environment

Rebecca Thiele/WMUK

If you’re one of those people who stopped using microbeads because you care about the environment, we have some bad news. Microbeads are those tiny plastic bits in your toothpaste and facewash that pollute oceans, rivers, and lakes.

Scientists say there’s a new microplastic to blame—and it’s lurking in your laundry hamper. Plastics in our clothes are sending billions of microfibers into our waterways—making fish and other aquatic life sick. 

A microfiber piece under a microscope
Credit GTM Reserch Reserve /
A microfiber piece under a microscope

Plastics Are In Most Of Your Clothes

When you do laundry, take a look at the tags on your clothes. You’ll find out that most of your shirts and pants are made of at least some synthetic material - like polyester, nylon, and spandex.

Every time you wash them, the plastic fibers in them go down the drain, pass through water treatment plants, and into our lakes and rivers.

Last year the outdoor clothing company Patagonia commissioned a study on microfibers. Scientists in the lab washed synthetic fleece jackets over and over again. Each time they washed a jacket, it loosened the knit—releasing more and more plastic fibers. 

“We all have seen the lint catcher in our dryers when we wash something new, and yet you sort of assume it reaches an equilibrium point at some point in time. But it was surprising to see that with the continued abrasion through the washing cycle, that indeed older garments were shedding as well,” said Jill Dumain, Director of Environmental Strategy at Patagonia.

In this figure, USGS compared the abundance of different types of microplastics in the Great Lakes (left) to streams leading into the Great Lakes (right). As you can see, fibers clearly take the lead in Great Lakes tributaries. Though the makeup of the Gr
Credit U.S. Geological Survey
As you can see, plastic fibers clearly take the lead in streams that flow into the Great Lakes. Though the makeup of the Great Lakes themselves is a bit different.

Why Plastic Fibers End Up In Streams And Lakes

Once plastic fibers go through the wash, they end up in wastewater treatment plants—but they don't all stop there. In September, U.S. Geological Survey released a study that showed the majority of microplastics found in Great Lakes tributaries are microfibers. 

Melissa Duhaime is a researcher in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan. Surprisingly, her team found that most microfibers never leave a plant—about 95 percent get removed.

“But still if you consider how much water passes through a plant a day, that still means that roughly 15 billion plastic particles could be released per day from a single plant and sent directly into the Great Lakes watershed,” said Duhaime.

In other words, compared to plastic fibers the microbeads in your face scrub are just a blip on the radar. Duhaime says unfortunately, microfibers are even more harmful to fish.

“The beads could possibly more easily pass through the digestive system and not hang around inside the fish for as long as a fiber that can get enmeshed in the tissue,” she said.

Why You Won't See A Ban On Synthetic Clothing

As of 2018, microbeads will be banned in the U.S. We can ban microfibers too, right? Not likely.

According to the American Apparel and Footwear Association, synthetic clothing is becoming more popular. Especially with the rise of “athleisure”—a trend towards workout clothes you can wear every day.

Jill Dumain at Patagonia says you can’t replace a synthetic material with a natural one and expect it to work just as well. Those plastics in your jacket are often what makes it wind-resistant or waterproof.

“If we took a polyester shell, for example, or a nylon shell—what could we replace that with and what would it be?" said Dumain. "Maybe a wax cotton that wouldn’t at all be the same performance as that product. So it would be a really different product at the end of the day.”

One exception to this would be the basics—like tee shirts and jeans. Nate Herman of the AAFA says getting rid of synthetics in those products probably wouldn’t make that big of a difference. That clothing is mostly made of cotton anyway.  

Beth Jensen works for the Outdoor Industry Association, a collaborative of clothing brands like Patagonia and The Northface. She says natural materials are also more expensive and come with their own problems.

“Natural materials have a whole host of other tradeoffs that you also have to consider—whether it’s animal welfare in the supply chain of down and wool and leather. Land use concerns, water use concerns. For example, cotton is a huge user of water,” said Jensen.

The Clothing Industry, Scientists Search For Solutions

Some clothing manufacturers are working with other industries to help fix the microfiber problem.

“Is there something that can be done with washing machines, for example? Putting a filter on a washing machine that could help address this problem," Jensen said. "Is it something where wastewater treatment plants have a role to play in the broader more industrial processing of water.”

Or is there a way to make clothing so that it sheds fewer fibers?

Jensen says clothing companies don’t want to make any major changes until scientists have more data on microfibers. Sherri Mason, who researches microplastics at the State University of New York at Fredonia, says by the time all that data is in—the world’s water could be overloaded with microfibers.

“If there’s evidence that there might be an issue, you don’t wait for everything. You don’t wait for all of the answers,” said Mason.

The short term solution, says American Apparel and Footwear Association, is to wash your clothes less. 

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