Washing synthetic clothing is harming our marine life

Microplastic pollution caused by washing synthetic textiles is one of the main sources of primary microplastics impacting marine life. Microplastics are small plastic pieces less than five millimeters long and these tiny particles easily pass through water filtration systems and end up in the ocean and lakes.

New research from the Australian government science agency, CSIRO shows that at least 14m tonnes of microplastic pieces are likely sitting at the bottom of the world’s oceans and serves as a reminder for us about the damage microplastics can do. There has been a lot of focus on single use plastics and rightly so, but microplastics also have a significant impact on the environment as these tiny pieces of plastic that are non-bio-degradeable are entering our marine environment and being consumed by an array of ocean wildlife, including man species of fish, harming both marine life and life higher on the food chain including humans.

A report from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, a London-based organisation, found that 35% of microplastics released into the world’s oceans are from synthetic textiles. For example, a single wash of a fleece jacket can shed 250,000 plastic fibres that wastewater treatment plants cannot remove.

Think about the lint that is collected in the tumble dryer - it is made up of tiny bits of thread from the clothing that have become dislodged and are caught by a mesh screen.

In the same way, synthetic fibres come off in the wash, but they’re so small, and there’s no filter inside the washing machines to catch them. Instead, these tiny plastic fibres pass through to sewage treatment plants, which often don’t have filters fine enough to catch them. Treated wastewater is then often dumped into rivers or the sea, carrying plastic clothing fibres with it. It doesn’t help that synthetic fibres represent almost the 60% of the annual global consumption of fibres.

Some microplastics are purposefully added to products, and that has been a long-standing practice. Anyone that has ever used body or face wash with exfoliating particles in them have most likely bought products containing microbeads that are essentially microplastics. Many countries have banned them and here in New Zealand, government regulations banning plastic microbeads took effect in June 2018. The ban has been a great step towards stopping the production and sales of microbead-containing products like wash-off cosmetics such as facial and body exfoliants as well as abrasive cleaning products, but nothing has been done yet about the impact of synthetic fibres on our marine environment.

So what can we do to help?

The best approach is to buy clothing and household linen made from natural fibres like cotton and linen. We love linen and will write more about that in an upcoming blog

If you do need to buy clothing or bedding made from synthetic fibres, focus on the aftercare of your garment as this affects the item’s carbon footprint:

• wash your clothes at a lower temperature,

• use mesh laundry bags to catch threads and

• if possible install filters on washing machine waste pipes.