WASHINGTON — Scientists say tiny fibers from our clothes are escaping our washing machines and winding up in the water, fish and us, the U.S. digital news website Vox reported Friday.
Polyester, nylon, acrylic and other synthetic fibers — all of which are forms of plastic — are now about 60 percent of the material that makes up our clothes worldwide.
These microfibers, which are less than 5 millimeters in length with diameters measured in micrometers, are so small that there is no filter inside washing machines to catch them. They can pass through to sewage treatment plants and eventually reach the ocean.
“Think about how many people are washing their clothes on a daily basis, and how many clothes we all have,” said Imogen Napper, a marine scientist at the University of Plymouth in Britain. “Even when we’re walking around, not washing our clothes, tiny fibers are falling off. It’s everywhere.”
In 2016, Napper and a colleague designed a test to see how many of these fibers could be shed in the wash. They fitted a Whirlpool front-loading washing machine with a special filter to collect tiny fibers. They tested swatches of three types of fabric: a polyester-cotton blend T-shirt, a polyester hoodie, and an acrylic sweater. After a few washes, the acrylic fabric shed the most, followed by the polyester, and then the poly-cotton blend.
“We found that in a typical wash, 700,000 fibers could come off,” Napper said. Other studies have come up with different estimates. One 2011 paper found 1,900 fibers could be released from a single synthetic garment in a wash, and another study estimated 1 million fibers could be released from washing polyester fleece.
Even if the amount of plastic shed per load is small, it adds up. A paper published by Environmental Science and Technology, a biweekly peer-reviewed scientific journal, estimated that “a population of 100,000 people would produce approximately 1.02 kilograms of fibers each day.”
Once plastics are in the ocean environment, “there’s no effective way to remove them,” Napper said. These tiny plastic particles can find their ways into the diets of marine life and accumulate throughout the food chain.
It’s hard to say how much microplastics from textiles contribute to the overall plastic pollution problem in the ocean because microplastics are so tiny.
A 2017 report released by the Switzerland-based International Union for Conservation of Nature estimated about 35 percent of the microplastics that enter the ocean come via synthetic textiles. Plastic can take hundreds of years to degrade.