If you’ve been trying to go plastic-free, then there’s one surprising place you need to tackle next after you’ve done the kitchen, bathroom, and your kids’ toy chest: your wardrobe.
You know the obvious pieces of plastic: the dry cleaning bags, the buttons and zippers on cheap fashion, the slim “velvet” hangers. But there’s much more lurking in plain sight. Look at the tags inside your clothing, and you’ll see it: polyester, nylon, Spandex, Lycra, acrylic, polypropylene, and polyamide are all synthetic fibers that are manufactured from petroleum and — just like plastic — will take hundreds of years to biodegrade.
In fact, there’s more polyester on the market now than any other fabric, including cotton. And these synthetic fibers have permeated more than just our closets. They’re in our tap water, bottled water, beer, sea salt, and seafood. They’re even in the air we breathe.
How is this possible?
Microfibers are tiny fibers that break off of textiles. They’re so small, you can’t see them with your naked eye. You might only notice them if one floats into the sunlight in your home. Yeah, that dust mote? A synthetic microfiber.
Every time you wash your clothing, anywhere from 1,900 to 1 million synthetic microfibers wash out. Some of them wash past all the filters in the waste treatment plant and end up in our waterways, which flow into the ocean. A 2016 study found that 89% of water samples around Florida had plastic in them, and of those pieces of plastic, 82% were microfibers.
These microfibers can contain toxins, and attract more toxins once they are in the water, then are eaten by marine life. Anywhere from a quarter to a third of seafood you can buy has plastic in its gut. In fact, the average person will ingest 5,900 microplastics a year.
There’s even a microscopic snow of microplastics falling over the remotest, most pristine corners of the Pyrenees in Europe.
Microfibers as an environmental and health threat were just discovered in 2011, and researchers are still trying to fully understand the problem and what we can do about it. But if you’re alarmed, here’s what you can do:
1. Only buy synthetics when necessary. Synthetic fibers do have their uses, like making lightweight and waterproof outdoor and athletic wear. Nylon is a favorite for bathing suits. Synthetic fibers like Spandex are blended with natural fibers to give them stretch. But, there is more and more workout gear made with the naturally sweat-wicking, odor-eating, soft, and eco-friendly merino wool. Many outdoor brands now offer refurbished secondhand products, so you don’t have to buy virgin polyester. And always check the label on less obvious types of fashion — dresses, tops, denim, really anything — and avoid buying anything with more than 5% synthetic whenever possible.
2. Buy a filter for your washing machine. Ideally, all washing machines would come preloaded with a filter that can catch microfibers. Until then, there are several companies now making add-on filters, like Planet Care, Environmental Enhancements, and Filtrol. They catch a majority of the fibers washing out of your clothing. If you can’t install a filter on your machine (or you’re going to the laundromat) then toss a Cora Ball inside — it catches a quarter of microfibers from going down the drain, allowing you to pluck it all out and throw it in the trash.
3. Get involved in changing the system. Donate to organizations working on the problem, like Surfrider, Ocean Conservancy, and Plastic Soup Foundation. Email or tweet at your favorite fashion brands and ask them what they’re doing about the problem. And tell your representatives that you want funding for research and legislation to stem the tiny tide of microfibers washing over our world.