Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Wardrobe to Water Pollution

May 1, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

wardrobe 1

Plastic waste in our waterways can be quite an eyesore. Bags and containers litter shorelines, clog streams and rivers, and form floating trash heaps in the middle of the ocean, imposing harmful effects on the environment and resulting in often deadly consequences to marine life. Additionally, there are lesser known and potentially more pervasive plastic pollutants causing harm to the environment.

wardrobe 2Microplastics (plastic fragments that are five millimeters or smaller and too little for us to see with the naked eye) may be entering our waterways every time we do a load of laundry. Clothing created from synthetic materials such as polyester, acrylic, and nylon is made up of microfibers that are essentially tiny threads of plastic. It is estimated that nearly 2,000 microfibers may be rinsed out of a single piece of synthetic clothing each time it’s washed. Multiply that figure by the number of articles of clothing made from synthetic fabrics laundered daily — that adds up to an alarming amount of plastic microfibers entering our waterways each year.

A research study, Accumulation of Microploastic on Shorelines Worldwide: Sources and Sinks, published in 2011, analyzed sediment samples from 18 beaches on six continents over the course of four years. The study found that 85% of the synthetic materials accumulating at these sites were microfibers that matched the kinds of materials found in synthetic clothing. The greatest concentrations of the fibers were located in densely populated areas and near sewage outflows. This means that our wardrobes could be the biggest culprits in ocean pollution and virtually the entire population is contributing.

Synthetic clothing fibers can contaminate not just water but also food. Microplastics in the marine system can get taken up by shellfish and small filter-feeding fish such as anchovies and sardines. Compounding the problem, these tiny plastics can also absorb other toxins such as pesticides and organic pollutants. Once microplastics are ingested by marine organisms, they can be stored in their tissues and cells, introducing toxic pollutants to the food chain. The bioaccumulation of pollutants can have serious negative consequences for wildlife and humans.

So how do we tackle the problem of microplastics migrating from our closets and drawers into waterways and marine ecosystems? We could swap out synthetic clothing for fabrics made from natural fibers such as cotton, wool, and silk. However, that may not be realistic from a fashion and economic standpoint; in addition, synthetic fabrics are durable and versatile and their manufacturing can yield a smaller water and energy footprint than natural fabric production.

Part of the solution could be designing better synthetic textiles that don’t shed their fibers as readily. Currently, textile manufacturers are not required to test their fabrics for shedding — an effort from both government and the clothing manufacturing industry could stimulate forward progress on the issue.

Creating better filtering systems for washing machines and for municipal wastewater treatment plants could be a viable solution to reduce the amount of microplastics reaching waterways. Currently, washing machines don’t have filters capable of trapping these tiny filaments, so every time the water drains from a washing machine, microfibers are swept into the wastewater and eventually end up in the ocean. Sewage treatment plants also lack the capacity to filter out these miniscule fibers.

More research is still needed to determine the hazards synthetic microfibers pose to the health of humans, wildlife, and the environment. And still more ingenuity will be required to find innovative solutions to the problem. However, recognizing that our wardrobes and washing machines are contributing a large source of pollution to our waterways is a huge step forward in addressing this challenging issue. The next step is to supply the clothing manufacturing industry, government, and the public with more information on the matter so choices regarding clothing can be made that pose less of a risk.

By Jenn McGivern

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