Today, a CBC News story says the UN International Maritime Organization is reporting microplastics being present in supermarket seafood. Not exactly a surprise. Plastic pollution in oceans and lakes is fast becoming a lot more than sad pictures of animals with plastic rings around their necks.
The polluting effects of textile and clothing production is an elephant in the room that has been largely ignored, and microplastics are one of the problems, coming not just from factories, but from the wastewater from your own washer. Studies and articles about the microfibre residue from washing synthetic fleece and other synthetic clothing have had almost no effect in addressing this problem. Plastic microbeads found in body care products have gotten much more attention and bans are pending in several countries, including Canada, but not until mid 2018.
Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation published an article in National Geographic last year, with a map showing the highest concentrations of microplastics on shorelines.
In The Guardian, ecologist Mark Browne discusses how 85% of the human-made material found on shorelines were microplastics linked to synthetic clothing. Here’s some microfibres collected in the Gulf of Maine:
Browne also describes the almost complete lack of interest from clothing manufacturers in addressing the problem, including many greenwashers who tout themselves as “industry detoxers”. Clothing made from recycled plastic is being marketed as “eco-friendly” and “earth saving” by companies too numerous to list.
While recycling is good, recycled plastic clothes, and plastics in general, are not. In the CBC article, University of Toronto ecologist Chelsea Rochman says, “It has infiltrated every level of the food chain in marine environments and likely fresh water, and so now we’re seeing it come back to us on our dinner plates.” (not mine, as I do not eat fish) Nothing is immune. “Microplastics have been found in oysters and other mollusks both in field research and retail outlets.”
A Canadian Geographic article cites several studies, including one from Norway, where it was recently reported that scientists from the Norwegian Institute for Air Research and the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research had determined that outdoor clothing such as fleece jackets and Gore-Tex clothing was the biggest source of the more than 100 million particles of microplastic being deposited via wastewater into the fiord at Longyearbyen, a community of 2,000 on the island of Svalbard. One sample from Adventfjorden shows a clam containing plastic microfibres:
Another study was done by a team from the Vancouver Aquarium. In 2015, they showed microplastics were widely distributed in British Columbia’s coastal waters, and that the tiny pieces of plastic less than five millimetres in size had entered the marine food chain through zooplankton, a vital source of food for fish and other marine mammal species. Here’s a tiny plankton that has consumed microplastic.
“This basically told us that humans living in coastal environments are releasing thousands of microplastics through their laundry and waste water,” said Peter Ross, director of the aquarium’s ocean pollution research program. “The problem is world-wide from the Arctic to the Antarctic, and it’s far more extensive than we imagined.”
One solution to this problem is to wear clothing made of organic, natural fibres. Not only is it far less environmentally harmful, from cultivation to processing, anything shed during washing will biodegrade. Another good move is to filter particles from your wastewater.