When we think about plastics in the oceans, I think many people think first of those profoundly dark images of sea turtles choking single use straws, fish stuck in the plastic rings from bottles, fish calmly floating along through water filled with garbage. These larger pieces of waste do not belong in bodies of water and we should absolutely take every reasonable effort to stop contributing to these issues. Today, however, we are going to be diving into an insidious offender, microplastics. Broadly speaking, microplastics fragments of any plastic type less than 5mm long. These tiny pieces of this non biodegradable plastic float around in water, enter living creatures, and work their way throughout an entire ecosystem. Despite their diminutive size, these particles have immense impacts.
Have you ever seen a soap or exfoliation product with tiny colored orbs inside? Those tiny orbs were most likely tiny balls of plastic that will be floating around in our water and infiltrating living organisms of millenia. Cosmetic companies produce these microplastics instead of using other natural and biodegradable exfoliators like sugar, ground almonds, and coffee grounds. These are primary microplastics. In 2015, President Obama signed a bill into law banning these tiny plastic orbs in cosmetic products, but this is not the case globally.
Secondary microplastics emerge as larger pieces of synthetic material break down. As larger pieces of plastic debris floating in the ocean will gradually fragment into irregularly shaped pieces of increasingly diminished size.
This is yet another terrible example of how industrial waste contributes to environmental destruction. Many wonderful environmental scholars and activists have produced content on the dangers of plastic waste of all sizes. I fully recommend that you take advantage of the many resources available to educate yourself and the people you know about the dangers of microplastics and the manifold sources thereof. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Ocean Clean Wash (https://www.oceancleanwash.org/solutions/solutions-for-consumers/), and the BBC Discovery Wildlife (https://www.discoverwildlife.com/people/facts-about-microplastics/) offer some great introductory resources.
However, this is a blog about the intersection between activism and fashion, so I am going to turn now to how the garment and textile industries feed into the issue of microplastics. Please understand that this is only one small component of a much larger issue. I do not mean to diminish the importance of the macrocosm by zooming in on this one facet.
Let me start by introducing something that sounds like a sci-fi invention: nanoplastics. These infinitesimally small fragments are typically no larger than 100 nm (for my US standard people, this means that they are at least one hundred times smaller than the dot on this “i”.) These nanoplastics are the result of the shedding of synthetic fibers during washing.
Let’s break down this definition. First, synthetic fibers. These are non-natural textile materials including fleece, lycra, spandex, polyester, etc. For reference, natural fibers would include cotton, wool, and linen among others. As always, it is important to remember that the most sustainable clothing options are usually the items you already have, and extending the life of clothing already in existence is far more gentle on the environment than production of new items.
Shedding is the process by which microscopic particles of synthetic fibers separate from the larger strangs and wash down drains into water treatment facilities, ground water, and bodies of water. Far too small to be filtered out, these plastics gradually accumulate in plants and animals.
These nanoplastics release toxins and are linked to higher instances of cancer and other diseases. They contaminate food, water, soil, air, and the bodies of living organisms. We all know that plastic in the water can never be a good thing, so what can we do?
The first thing to remember, before I mention anything else, is that washing your spandex-cotton blend jeans is not the main contributor to microplastics in the water supply. The largest producers are the cosmetic, tire, textile, manufacturing, shipping, and fishing industries as a whole. As with many systematic issues, individuals see calls to personal action without the much more meaningful and necessary changes on the part of multinational corporations and governmental policy.
However, if you are looking for ways to make your own footprint a bit smaller, here are some options.
You may notice a theme, but as much as possible, try to avoid purchasing new clothing. Find pre-loved items wherever possible for you. In this way, you can help to reduce the demand for new textiles, which can limit waste. Furthermore, clothing generally sheds most when it is new, so those pre-loved items will shed less in each wash, compared to the same item in brand new condition.
While idiosyncrasies related to use, washing frequency, water temperature and pressure, detergent used, garment construction, age, and condition, etc make it difficult to make generalizations about exactly how much nanoplastic washing a load of laundry will create, washing your clothing less often will definitely help to limit your shedding. Washing at a lower temperature, doing full loads, and limiting the use of extra spin cycles may also help to reduce shedding. Check out this Vox for some additional stats: https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/9/19/17800654/clothes-plastic-pollution-polyester-washing-machine and this article from the Ocean Clean Wash organization for some additional tips on washing https://www.oceancleanwash.org/solutions/solutions-for-consumers/
If you live in an area where they are available, do not purchase any exfoliation product that contains plastic beads. Opt for sugar, coffee, ground almonds, pumice or other exfoliating agents that will biodegrade. Generally try to avoid single use plastics, where compatible with your medical and physical needs.
If you have time and energy to devote to this cause, advocate for meaningful change in the governmental policy regarding microplastics. The 2015 Microbead Free Waters Act was a great start, but there is plenty of work to be done. Banning plastic shopping bags in the remaining states that have not made this change and other actionable public policies to limit plastic in the water are great next steps. The Citizens Climate Lobby is a non-partisan group that advocates for environmentally conscious policy, so this might be a great group to check out.
The issues surrounding plastics in the ocean run far deeper than sea turtles choking on straws. Fast fashion contributes to this situation in many ways, of which production of microplastics is only one small piece. As I mentioned earlier, making manageable changes to your washing routine where you can and reducing your consumption of new clothing items are ways to reduce your own microplastic footprint. Tackling the issue as a whole requires major changes to industrial practices and governmental regulation, which cannot fall to individual consumers.
Eleni Georgiadis is a classically trained horn player currently residing in Kentucky. Outside of music, she enjoys knitting, sewing, composting, kombucha brewing, and spending time outdoors. She is thrilled to have the opportunity to share her thoughts about sustainability and inclusivity in fashion, weaving together her technical knowledge, passion, and research.