Author: Alicia Lam 2022
ABSTRACT: Plastic pollution is an environmental issue that has been understood for decades now, but in recent years microplastics present in clothing and textiles have emerged causing concern within this industry. Microplastics are tiny plastic particles, stemming from surrounding environments or from materials breaking down from larger plastics. Microplastics, also known as microfibers in textiles, are commonly embedded in materials such as polyester, nylon, polyamide, and acrylic just to name a few. Tiny plastic fibers are released from these materials into surrounding environments through water or air during the manufacturing process, when laundry is being washed or dried, and clothing being worn. This is an increasingly prevalent issue as microplastics travel from the manufacturer, to the consumer, to the laundry, then to the ocean where wildlife consume the microfibers, thus ending up in human digestive systems. Cleaning systems are not well-equipped with the proper filtration tools, therefore these harmful plastics end up in our ecosystems where the food chain connects the life cycle of microplastics back to humans.
We hear a lot about pollution through single-use plastic items, such as plastic bags and plastic straws that pollute marine ecosystems. Although these large plastic items contribute to the overall mass of pollution that is clogging marine environments, they account for a small amount of plastic particles recorded. This is due to the fact that microplastics cannot be seen with the naked eye, rather these particles are hiding within marine ecosystems and wildlife. It is evident that this is an even tinier threat that is emerging and is going unnoticed. These microplastics are plastic objects smaller than five millimeters in size and they make up a large portion of plastic particle pollution in marine habitats. These microplastics are largely made up of microfibers, which are small strands of plastic woven into fabric from clothing. These fabrics include polyester, nylon, acrylic, and other synthetic materials that are cheap to produce and popular within the fashion production industry. Due to the rise in demand, manufacturers began producing more clothing that contain plastic materials. Unfortunately, these materials contribute to the excessive amounts of microfibers and microplastics found in the ocean that are difficult to remove, contributing to the climate crisis.
Synthetic fibers have taken over the apparel production, with more than half of the products containing these harmful fibers. That is when scientists noticed an increased amount of microplastics circulating in the ocean, usually in the form of a shard or microbead. Microplastics are found in marine ecosystems due to a simple household activity, known as laundry, where these materials are washed and the excess materials make their way through varying water systems. Every time someone does laundry a small amount of microfibers separate from the clothes that are produced from these materials. The small and harmful microfibers travel through the filters in the machines, as they are not well-equipped to filter out these tiny particles. Then they make their way through the water treatment plants, due to their size they avoid further filtration, and ultimately end up in marine resources that are unable to be cleaned of these fibers. Tiny strands of plastic are overwhelming our oceans and reaching marine habitats across the globe. The smallest aquatic organisms to the largest marine creatures consume these fibers through the food chain, even being ingested by marine species that humans consume on a daily basis, like fish for example. Thus, these microfibers make their way up the food chain where humans end up consuming these harmful materials. As the microplastic particles make their way up the food chain, these plastics used to produce our clothes end up in our systems causing negative health effects that could have long-term effects for humans and wildlife.
It was determined by scientists that the microfiber that released the most plastic per wash was acrylic, with over 700, 000 on the first wash alone. This is alarming due to the sheer amount of laundry that is done on a daily basis for households and individuals around the world. Each wash releases large amounts of microfibers and microplastics in surrounding ecosystems, impacting climate change as a whole. This mundane and normal activity is harmful to our planet. The issue with washing machines is they typically do not come with a filter, like dryers do. Everything that comes off the clothes in the washer travels through multiple systems, as the filtrations are too large to filter out the microplastics. From there these microplastics reach the ocean where they are consumed by microorganisms, such as plankton, that eat the debris falling to the sea floor. The plastic is then passed along the food chain, as described above, making the life cycle a full circle moment.
As simple and miniscule as this problem may seem, it is evident that microplastics contribute to the climate crisis. Clothing and textile production emit large amounts of emissions as the degradation of materials to microplastics largely emit greenhouse gases. Microplastic pollution alters the oceans climate mitigation, regeneration, and resilience to climate change. It directly impacts the ocean’s mitigation power by disrupting the flow of carbon present in the ocean. Biological carbon pump is a natural process executed by microorganisms that capture carbon on the ocean surface and transport it deeper into the ocean. This prevents the carbon from re-entering the atmosphere due to its absorption. Unfortunately, this natural process has hit a barrier as these organisms are struggling to absorb carbon through photosynthesis. They are affected by the ingested microplastics which limit survival rates, the inability to sink impacting carbon storage, energy depletion, and fertility rates. Marine life is a key contributor to the ocean’s biological carbon pump and has been limited by microplastics, increasing carbon in the atmosphere.
Furthermore, an increased amount of plastic in the water, air, and surrounding environments affect the overall health of these systems. Entire marine ecosystems are being destroyed by microplastics that go unnoticed. The overall health and life span of these ecosystems are decreasing, contributing to the warming of oceans, lack of biodiversity, and lack of cleanliness in these natural environments. Ultimately, this reduces the ocean’s resilience to climate change as a whole. There is an increased amount of waste in marine ecosystems, increasing pollution and decreasing the health of these environments. However, there are integral solutions to these issues that can be applied to help mitigate these barriers associated with climate change. If the consumer has the means to switch to better quality materials, such as cotton, then this is an effective alternative but it is expensive and not easily accessible for everyone. Instead, filtration devices can be imputed in washing machines that can catch microfibers falling off of the clothes during the cycle but this can also be expensive. Filtration bags are an economically feasible alternative that traps microfibers off the piece of clothing placed in the bag. Additionally, washing clothes less often can be incorporated and buying fewer synthetic clothes may also help to show manufacturers that synthetic materials are not supported, ultimately decreasing overall demand. Thus, microplastics in clothing and textile may seem like a tiny problem but in reality it has a large impact on the future of our planet.
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My name is Alicia Lam and I am pursuing my undergraduate degree in Environment and Urban Sustainability (EUS) with a minor in Public Relations and Business Essentials. I am currently in my fourth year at Ryerson University and I am a member of the varsity women’s volleyball team.