It’s not just the visible plastic that is threatening life in the oceans and, increasingly, us. Microplastics are so small as to be invisible to the naked eye. They are found in many personal care products such as facial scrubs, and are too small to be filtered out in most wastewater treatment plants. Small fish and other creatures mistake these fibres for plankton and consume them. They then get passed up the food chain. These microplastics ought to be banned, and increasingly many personal care products are advertised without them. There are lots of substitutes.
However, there might be a much bigger source of microplastic pollution. Ecologist Mark Browne published a study in 2011 that found that 85% of the fibres he collected on beaches sampled from 18 sites worldwide came from synthetic clothing. He found that a single piece of synthetic clothing can release about 1,900 microfibres each time it’s washed. Considering the amount of synthetic clothing washed every day around the world that is a huge number of fibres.
During interviews he complained about not being able to receive funding for his studies and noted that even Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company, would not contribute, even though it profited from a huge volume of fleece garments sold worldwide. Apparently the folks at Patagonia did change their minds because in 2016 they commissioned a study that found that the number of microfibres released from a single fleece jacket was as high as 250,000 and the average was 81,317.
Another study reported by the Plastic Soup Foundation[1] found half a million to a million fibres released per wash. They suggest that the best way to wash synthetic clothing is to wash at low temperature with liquid, not powder soap, with fabric softener. Another hint: fill up your washing machine. A full load decreases the friction between clothes.
Two products are now coming onto the market. Cora Ball is a ball that you simply put into your washer. It collects fibres while it is bouncing around with your wash. The Guppyfriend is a synthetic bag that you put your synthetic clothes into. Tests show that it collects 99% of the synthetic fibres. It now sells at some Patagonia stores, although not in the one near me. It’s available online. Unfortunately, this is another of those voluntary measures that most people are unlikely to even know about.



















A longer-term solution would be for municipal waste systems to filter out these fibres. Apparently Los Angeles has started doing this. Is this effective? Can it be installed elsewhere? Otherwise: avoid fleece for future purchases and wear what you have dirty, or wash in bag. Maybe wash by hand?
We need long-term solutions, such as degradable plastics made from non-petroleum products, quickly. Until then, if you can afford it, buy cotton, linen or wool. This might not be a long-term solution, because growing cotton and raising sheep are energy and water intensive farming practices that are not sustainable for clothing billions of people.
Hopefully, more ecologically benign fibres will be designed. Perhaps as marijuana becomes more mainstream hemp clothing may evolve to fill some of the gap. It doesn’t have to be just for hippies. Hemp is basically a weed that chokes out other plants, so no herbicides are needed to grow it. It is also gentle on the earth and requires very little water.
Microplastics are now everywhere, including in our tap water and bottled water. They are in the food we eat. In the Strait of Georgia, near my home in B.C., scientists found 3,000 plastic microparticles per cubic metre of water. Returning B.C. salmon ingest up to 90 plastic particles a day. These are staggering numbers and a threat to us all. An Austrian study in 2018 examined, in minute detail, the stools of eight volunteers from around the globe and found microplastics in everyone. Plastics found included polypropylene, PET, and polystyrene.
Microplastics affect marine creatures in a myriad of ways. Mussels lose their grip and plastics suppress the ability of shellfish to detect and avoid predators. Coral becomes susceptible to disease.
Plastics have been found ingested by organisms in the Mariana trench, the deepest canyon in the ocean.
Earlier when I mentioned seeing plastics on a beach, I said that it could take 600 years to “break down to natural substances.” Now I have my doubts. Do these plastics ever “break down” or do they simply “break up” into smaller particles and life-destroying chemicals? We humans are mounting a cruel assault on life forms over the whole planet. And we don’t even realize it. The easiest and cheapest way to deal with plastics is to limit their use in the first place.
Here is a to-do list:
- Change the public perception of how plastics are used in society. Start in the school system. Develop sustainable habits.
- Support research to create plastic used for single-use containers that is quickly bio-degradable in land and water environments. Mandate its use. Research plastic-eating enzymes.
- Ban single use containers including water bottles in areas where tap water is safe. (Safe tap water is not available in many developing countries.)
- Regulate clothing fabrics, especially, but not only, synthetic fleece.
- Ban the use of plastics in cosmetics.
- Mount a worldwide campaign to recover ghost fishing nets.
- Research and install filters for trapping micro-plastic in home laundries and in larger waste management systems.
- Eliminate the huge subsidies and tax benefits that the fossil fuel companies receive worldwide. (in 2015 that amounted to $5.3tn.)
- Design plastics to be used in closed-loop, circular systems in which products are repeatedly remade into new products.
- Tax carbon.
- Share our knowledge abroad.
[1]The mission of Plastic Soup Foundation is: ‘No plastic waste in our water!’ We do not take plastic out of the water; instead, we want to put an end to the increasing amount of plastic polluting the ocean by tackling the issue at its sources. We have been working towards this goal since 2011. (