by Kevin Dervishi

Imagine you’re outside running errands, and you see a jogger trip over a sneaky curb. A bad situation becomes worse when that jogger hits their head on the way down (that mailbox just had to be there) and they’re lying unconscious at your feet. Although there are other people out and about, you’re the only one in the immediate vicinity. Your heart races, your eyes widen, and adrenaline starts pumping as you realize that you are the first responder, and it is up to you how this emergency unfolds. Well buckle up, because the jogger didn’t trip. 

It’s far worse: they got home and threw their clothes in the washer.

The alarms just rang: we’re drinking our clothes

Plastic pollution is a much smaller problem than we thought, and that’s bad news. Microplastics are defined as any plastic particles smaller than 5 millimeters; that’s around half as wide as the average fingernail. They often come from the breakdown of plastic debris like water bottles or plastic bags, but they can also be shed from clothes thrown in the washer. In fact, because of continually-rising demands in global synthetic fiber usage, our jogger friend’s clothing will release the kinds of microplastics that have already infiltrated our food, our water, and yes, our bodies. We are the first responders in the situation because, until just recently, we didn’t really appreciate the different types of microplastics (such as microfibers), and where they might be coming from.

We’ve known about plastic waste in the ocean for decades: news anchors all wore grim faces as they shared pictures of the massive collection of trash in a region of the Pacific Ocean, a deposit we now know as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The vast majority of this Texas-sized mass of debris is made of plastic, and that’s also true when it comes to ocean waste in general. Scientists and activists announced concern that this waste leads to microplastics that end up in the food chain; they were right, but the problem was worse than they realized. 

Figure 1: Flavors of microplastics. There are different types of microplastics, and some are much more common (and dangerous) than others. Large plastic debris such as water bottles and plastic bags will break down into microscopic “flakes”. Plastics in beauty products generate microbead waste, and clothing with synthetic fabric (like polyester, which is especially common in athletic and athleisure clothing) will shed microfibers.

What we didn’t at first appreciate was that the large plastic waste (like water bottles and shopping bags) floating in our oceans was mainly generating a single species of microplastic, but  that other types of microplastics existed and had less obvious sources that were being ignored. Historically, the plastic pollution discussion was focused on microflakes from plastic waste, and in the last decade the discussion shifted to microbeads when we began to realize that beauty products were a major source. Microbeads were eventually banned when then-President Obama signed the Microbeads Free Waters Act, leading to a country-wide ban on microbeads that the rest of the world soon followed. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize our clothes and washing machines were also large contributors of microplastic waste. In 2011, a researcher rang the alarm bell: microfibers are flooding our oceans.

Microfibers act like chemical sponges, and they’re everywhere – including our food and drinks

Ecology researcher Mark Browne analyzed sediment samples from shores all over the globe (across six different continents) and found that the closer the samples were to dense populations, the more they were contaminated with microplastics. This led Dr. Browne to wonder if wastewater produced from sewage treatment plants was a major source of this pollution. His follow-up experiments on wastewater treatment plant outflow supported this, and also showed that the microplastics weren’t just microflakes or microbeads, but also primarily microfibers.

Since Dr. Browne’s discoveries, follow-up studies have raised progressively more concern: just last year, a study examining microplastics in common consumables worldwide revealed disturbing data: 81% of their tap water samples contained human-made microplastics, and over 98% of that plastic waste was, you guessed it: microfibers. In case you were thinking of avoiding tap water, all the sea salts (commonly used in home and restaurant cooking) and commercial beers they sampled contained plastic waste, and 98-99% of that waste was microfibers.

Aside from being one of the most common forms of microplastic pollution, microfibers may also be among the most dangerous form of microplastic. Their shape and material makes them  good at acting as sponges that harmful chemical pollutants, including carcinogenic dyes, can attach to. It’s too early to tell how these microfibers will affect unaware humans, but experiments have shown microfibers will bioaccumulate in the liver, kidneys, and intestines of lab mice; in fish, these microfibers have been shown to cause starvation and reproductive issues. 

At this point, there is still not enough information to make conclusions on microplastic-based health issues in humans, and the World Health Organization published a report less than a month ago that acknowledges this. Their current assessment is that microplastics are a “low health concern” for humans, but they stress that more studies and information are needed. In short, the jury is out: at worst, we’re causing harm to ourselves and future generations. At best, humans will be not be affected directly, but sea-life will suffer from the aforementioned starvation and reproductive issues, which may in turn circle back to affect humans who rely on the sea for food and livelihood

The Microfiber Pipeline – Where are possible solutions?

To figure out a solution that will keep these potentially toxic fibers out of our water and bodies, we need to understand their journey from manufacturing to the oceans (Figure 2).

Figure 2: The microfiber pipeline, from factory to fish. Each step in this pathway represents ways in which we can address the microfiber problem, from both an individual level as well as a society-wide level.

Step 1: Clothing and textile companies generate synthetic fibers made of plastics such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic, and these plastics are then woven into clothes. Consumers buy synthetic fiber clothing, which is often cheaper, more durable, and better at moisture-wicking than natural fiber clothing (like cotton or hemp-based clothing).

Step 2: Washing machines are used for our synthetic-fiber clothes and lack filters small enough to catch microfibers. Clothes in the washer shed microfibers, and that fiber-heavy water goes to wastewater treatment plants. A single jacket can shed up to 250,000 microfibers in one wash! In addition to shedding far more than clothing with natural fibers like cotton, these plastic fibers will take much longer to degrade.

Step 3: Wastewater treatment plants filter out around 98-99% of the microfibers before running the filtered water out into the ocean. Unfortunately, these plants generally handle such high amounts of water that the 1-2% of microfibers that make it through can still lead to millions of microplastics in the ocean every day.

There are three main camps when it comes to finding solutions to this problem, each of them focused on one of the three steps in this pipeline. The San Francisco-based non-profit The Story of Stuff argues that a large-scale solution needs cooperation and responsibility from clothing companies and emphasize step 1 of the pipeline as the point to focus on. Meanwhile, various products for washing machines have been commercialized that focus on step 2 and can catch microfibers shed from washing clothes so that they don’t escape in the water going to treatment plants. In theory, there may also be solutions based on step 3 that involve upgrading wastewater treatment plants to remove microplastics before their water flows out to sea. These solutions are less frequently supported, due to the fact that they would need to catch virtually 100% of incoming microfibers to eliminate waste in the oceans: a study of a treatment facility catching 98.4% of the microfibers from inflow showed that it will still release an estimated 65 million fibers into the ocean every day

In truth, there’s no easy answer to reducing microfiber pollution. A complex problem like this will require a comprehensive plan that addresses multiple steps in the microfiber pipeline; but we can still do things to help.

How to be a first responder

We live in an age where our voices hold more power than ever. Social media campaigns have swayed elections, convinced the nation to shun plastic straws, and generated hype over fake music festivals. The information about microplastics is very new, making us the first responders who will dictate how much plastic ends up in our bodies (and those of future generations). This is a worldwide problem, and how we address it as a global community is critical; each of us has options available to combat the rising tide of microfiber pollution.

  • Spread awareness and discuss this issue with friends and family. We all have a right to know what’s in our water.
  • Retail is incredibly competitive – brands and businesses are constantly trying to get your approval and loyalty as a customer. Use social media, phone calls, or any other preferred form of communication to ask your favorite clothing brands what they are doing to address this problem. Companies like Padagonia have already responded with support.
  • Government legislation has led to immediate bans of microbead use in products. Microfibers are deeply ingrained in the clothing/textile industries, which means a blanket ban on all microfibers is not an option. However, we should still expect discussion and action from our government! Reach out to your representatives about plastic in your drinking water.

Kevin Dervishi is a PhD candidate in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program at Harvard Medical School. Opinions and additional work can be found on his twitter

For More Information:

  • For more detail on microfiber pollution, check out a three-part series published on Ensia.
  • To read publicly-available lab experiments showing microfiber contamination in our food and water, visit this study and this study.
  • For a short video explanation of the microfiber problem, see the video made by The Story of Stuff.
  • For an in-detail explanation of why synthetic fibers are hard to stop using in clothing and textiles, this article from Quartz summarizes useful information and studies.

This article is part of our special edition on water. To read more, check out our special edition homepage

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