What’s the Issue with Microfibres?

I’ve see the word ‘microfibre’ being used often among the ethical/sustainable community online. Through it coming up so much I’ve gained somewhat of an idea of what microfibres are and how they are harmful, but I wanted to write this post not only for my own exploration but also to inform others about the issue. Although its known about among those who are already living an eco friendly lifestyle, I rarely see it being talked about among the general public. But it is a problem that everyone is contributing too.

So what are microfibres? Well they’re really tiny pieces of plastic that are smaller than 5mm in size. They are thinner than a human hair. And they are shed from our clothing. Not all of our clothing, but all of our clothing that is made from plastic, which is more than you might think. 64% of new fabrics are made out of plastic. The most common plastics used in clothes are:

  • Polyamide
  • Polyester
  • Acrylic
  • Nylon

Take a look at your wardrobe and see how many items are made out of these materials (its probably a lot if not most!)

Microfibres are most commonly shed through washing our clothes. So when our washing machines drain the water after the wash is complete they go down the drain. Waste treatment centres, where the water heads next, aren’t designed to trap microfibres, so they escape. Often ending up in our seas. The plastics can absorb poisonous substances such as toxins from laundry detergents. When they reach the ocean they are often mistaken as food by small sea creatures such as plankton. Plankton are near the bottom of the food chain, meaning that animals up the food chain can end up ingesting microfibres, all the way up to the blue whale. Research has found a whole range of negative effects that microfibres have had on sea life. The plastics can transfer to tissues of these animals and cause gut impaction, hormone disruption and liver damage. A study done by researchers at the University of Exeter where crabs were given food contaminated with microfibres found that the crabs started eating less, which resulted in stunted growth over time.

Of course, if you eat fish there is a chance that you will end up ingesting microfibres if they have. But even if you avoid fish you’re not entirely safe. They can end up being caught in sludge which is sprayed onto soil as fertiliser, which is then used to grow fruit, vegetables and more. Microfibres are even found in tap water. What’s all the more concerning is that no one really knows the effect it has on human health. Because it is a relatively new issue, we really have no idea of how harmful (or maybe harmless) it could be. This is mere speculation, but in 50 years or so we might be finding out that microfibres are responsible for some of the worst diseases we suffer from today.

The problem is not small. There is estimated to be between 0.6-1.7 million tons of microfibres released into the ocean every yearIn one load of laundry around 1900 microfibres are releasedOf the 9.5 million tons of plastic that goes into the ocean every year, around 15-30% is estimated to be fibres from clothing.

So what can we do about it?

Don’t be horrified if (like me) most of the clothing in your wardrobe is made of plastic fibres. Obviously its not feasible to go out and restock every item with a new piece that’s not made out of plastic.

The first and most simple thing you can is wash your clothes less. I am definitely guilty of washing things more than they actually need to be washed. If something isn’t stained, and it doesn’t smell too bad then it can simply be worn again. To freshen up the clothes a little, you can hang them on the line outside for a few hours. Alternatively you can hang them up in an open space inside which will have a similar effect, but it might take a little longer.

You can also make some changes to how you actually do your washing to reduce microfibres. Putting the washing machine on a lower temperature, filling it up completely and reducing spin speed make the wash less aggressive and as a result less microfibres are released. It’s also much better to air dry your clothes rather than tumble dry, as again that’s quite aggressive.

There are also a couple of items on the market that can help you reduce the microfibres released when washing.

You can put your washing in a Guppy Friend washing bag and it’ll both capture any microfibres released and reduce the amount that are shed in the first place. You can also purchase a Cora Ball which you simply put in your washing machine and it’ll capture the microfibres shed.

I hope this post gets you thinking a bit about microfibres. It’s amazing how plastic seems to get absolutely everywhere, but by taking a few simple measures, we can reduce our impact.


Friends of the Earth

Story of Stuff

The Guardian – How your clothes are poisoning our oceans and food supply

Ingestion of Plastic Microfibres by the Crab Carcinus maenas and Its Effect on Food Consumption and Energy Balance

The Guardian – Plastic fibres found in tap water around the world

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