By Dr. Mercola
Microbeads, those tiny plastic pellets found in body washes, facial scrubs, toothpaste and other toiletries and even pharmaceuticals, go down your drain, through the filters at most wastewater treatment plants and out into the environment.
Once in the water, microbeads easily absorb endocrine-disrupting and cancer-causing chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The chemical-laden beads, which resemble fish eggs, are then eaten by many forms of marine life, including plankton, fish, seabirds and whales.
Microbeads are so prevalent and damaging to the environment that the Canadian government banned their sale in toiletries by July 2018 and in non-prescription drugs by July 2019.1 Unfortunately, this is only one type of microplastic pollution, which refers to plastic particles less than 5 millimeters (0.19 inches) in size.
A recent study found an unlikely source contributing to microplastic pollution in the Great Lakes — microfiber clothing. These garments release microfibers, or tiny bits of synthetic materials, which are being found in waterways in far more abundance than even microbeads. The National Post reported:2
“U.S. researchers recently examined plastic pollution in 29 tributaries of the Great Lakes and found that 98 per cent of plastics collected were microplastics. Seventy-one per cent of these were microfibers.”
Microfibers in Clothing Are Polluting Waterways
In a study commissioned by sustainable apparel maker Patagonia, it was found that a synthetic jacket (such as a fleece) may release up to 2.7 grams (.095 ounces) of microfibers with each washing (that’s up to 250,000 microfibers).
On average, such a garment releases 1.7 grams of microfibers, although older jackets released fibers at twice the rate.3 While wastewater treatment plants may filter out some of this debris, some (anywhere from 6,500 to 28,000) inevitably sneak through and end up in waterways.
Ironically, the practice of recycling plastic bottles into clothing items, which is done by Patagonia and other outdoor companies as a way to reduce waste, may ultimately end up being environmentally destructive.
“Breaking a plastic bottle into millions of fibrous bits of plastic might prove to be worse than doing nothing at all,” The Guardian noted.4
It’s unknown what the environmental effects of microfiber pollution may be, but their irregular shape may make them harder for marine life to excrete than other microplastics (like microbeads). It could be that the longer the particles stay inside the fish, the more chemicals may leach into its body.
So the microfibers may be harming marine life via two mechanisms: physical blockage and chemical poisoning. Plastics may concentrate toxins at levels 100,000 to 1 million times higher than the levels found in seawater.5
This could have significant ramifications for humans who eat the fish, as researchers have found that 25 percent of fish and 33 percent of shellfish purchased at fish markets in California and Indonesia had microfibers in their guts.6
People are likely ingesting plastic with their food as well; one study estimated that Europeans eat up to 11,000 pieces of plastic per year via shellfish consumption; another found that you’re likely eating up to 178 pieces of tiny plastic with each farmed mussel.7
In addition, when marine life consumes microfibers, it could make them feel artificially full, causing them to eat less, as one study in crabs revealed.8
Katherine O’Reilly, a Ph.D. student at the University of Notre Dame, told the Smithsonian, “The simple act of ingesting microplastics can make animals feel full without giving them nutrition … They eat, but they starve.”9
Washing Machine Type and Other Variables That Affect Microfiber Pollution
At this point, there are more questions than answers regarding microfiber pollution and what to do about it, but some variables were revealed that may affect microfiber shed and more. Patagonia reported:10
“We know a single synthetic garment can shed thousands of synthetic microfibers in a single wash.
We also know synthetic microfibers, as opposed to microplastic beads, have an irregular shape that can pose a threat to smaller organisms — and may enter the food chain and work their way up to humans.
We also know we sell a lot of fleece; what we produce, combined with all the polyester and nylon products made and sold by other outdoor and apparel brands (and other industries), may constitute a significant problem.
… [W]e are just now getting an early sense of how potentially key variables, such as fabric quality or washing technology, may affect the path of microfibers from our homes to our oceans.”
The study revealed the following factors that may affect microfiber pollution:
- Jackets washed in top-load washers shed five times more microfibers than those washed in front-loaders
- Wastewater treatment plants filter 65 percent to 92 percent of microfibers, which isn’t enough to prevent environmental pollution
- Lower quality generic brand fleece shed 170 percent more over its lifespan than higher quality fleece
Separate research published in Marine Pollution Bulletin similarly found that the type of fabric makes a difference in the rate of microfiber shed.11
In a comparison of acrylic, polyester and a polyester-cotton blend, acrylic was the worst, shedding microfibers up to four times faster than the polyester-cotton blend. One acrylic garment could release 700,000 microfibers in a single washing.
Why a 'Microfiber Catcher' in Your Washing Machine May Not Be Enough
One solution to the microfiber pollution problem would be to install filters in washing machines — similar to lint traps in dryers — that could catch the fibers prior to them being released with the wastewater.
Nonprofit environmental group The Rozalia Project developed one such device, which can be thrown in to any washer and is said to catch 2,000 to 9,000 microfibers per wash per household. The Rozalia Project noted:12
“Right now, an average family inadvertently sends the equivalent plastic of 14.4 water bottles into our public waterways per year via their washing machines.
That is every household all over the world putting out plastic that is already small enough to be ingested by creatures of every size — many of whom will end up as Sunday dinner in those same households.”
The problem with this solution is what becomes of the microfibers when they’re disposed of in landfills (the same issue that is raised if wastewater treatment plants install filters to keep the tiny fibers out of waterways).
The fibers may simply end up entering the environment via another route. Richard Thompson, a professor at Plymouth University in the U.K. who co-authored the Marine Pollution Bulletin study, told the Smithsonian:13
“You've got to consider, what do you do with the sewage you captured?’ Sewage sludge — the leftover ‘solids’ from a wastewater plant, now full of tiny plastic particles, too — is landfilled, incinerated or treated and used as fertilizer.
That means that in most cases, the microplastics captured in a filter will just escape into the environment again.”
Another novel potential solution — a waterless washing machine — was developed by Tersus Solutions in Colorado, with funding from Patagonia. It washes clothing using pressurized carbon dioxide instead of water.14
Polyester Downfalls Beyond Microfiber Pollution
Beyond microfiber pollution, polyester and other man-made materials have considerable additional downfalls, at least environmentally speaking. As written in Environmental Health Perspectives:15
“ … [P]olyester, the most widely used manufactured fiber, is made from petroleum. With the rise in production in the fashion industry, demand for man-made fibers, especially polyester, has nearly doubled in the last 15 years, according to figures from the Technical Textile Markets.
The manufacture of polyester and other synthetic fabrics is an energy-intensive process requiring large amounts of crude oil and releasing emissions including volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and acid gases such as hydrogen chloride, all of which can cause or aggravate respiratory disease.
Volatile monomers, solvents and other by-products of polyester production are emitted in the wastewater from polyester manufacturing plants. The EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, considers many textile manufacturing facilities to be hazardous waste generators.”
Even seemingly innocuous garments like jeans are often produced using a laundry list of toxic chemicals, including perfluorochemicals, phthalates and azo dyes. It’s not only man-made materials that are the problem, however.
Even conventionally grown genetically engineered (GE) cotton is problematic due to the cotton industry’s heavy use of hazardous herbicides and insecticides, including some of the most hazardous insecticides on the market.16 This is one reason why I strongly encourage you to choose organic cotton clothing whenever possible — it will not be genetically engineered and subject to this onslaught of toxic exposures.
Tips for Safer Clothing — for You and the Environment
Looking for clothing made from organic cotton is an excellent start to finding safe, non-toxic clothing (for you and the environment). Natural fiber clothing may also minimize the shedding of microfibers common to synthetic fibers. This includes organic cotton, silk, wool, bamboo and hemp.
You can also look for the OEKO-TEX Standard 100 label, which is indicative that it has been tested by an independent laboratory and found to be free of harmful levels of more than 100 substances, including:
Ultimately, the best choice for the environment is to purchase natural, organic, high-quality clothing and less clothing overall. Even Patagonia recommended, “As always, don’t buy what you don’t need because everything we make — and everything you consume — has an adverse impact on the planet.”17