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Do The Clothes You Wear End Up In The Food You Eat?
The hidden threat of microfibres.
When you feel tired and cold, you probably feel like getting cosy in your old favourite fleece, which has been at the back of the wardrobe for a few months or treating yourself to a new one perhaps. Marketing jargon may call it microfleece or polar fleece, conjuring up images of being warm even in the coldest places. Imagine relaxing on the lounge, engrossed in your favourite Netflix series, under a huge new fleecy throw. Think again! Fleece is usually made from 100% polyester - which is after all a common plastic. Doesn’t seem quite as warm and cosy to surround yourself in plastic!
Synthetic materials like polyester, acrylic and nylon, the stuff that so many of our clothes and soft furnishings are made from, shed tiny plastic particles called microfibers which are now all around us. They’re in the clothes we wear, the bedding we sleep in, the water we drink, the food we eat and even the air that we breathe.
Scientists are beginning to see microfibers as a bigger environmental concern than single-use plastic.
Plastic bags, bottles, cups and straws are more tangible as environmental threats because they’re visible. We see them washing up on our beaches and littering our shoreline.
We can understand the scale of the problem when it’s obvious they’re floating in on currents from other countries around the world. You only have to look at a label on a washed-up product to know that it may have come from outside Australia.
It’s a truly global issue
But thanks to the increasing momentum to avoid single-use plastics, there’s now a great range of widely available practical alternatives to these items we use every day.
It feels like the tide has turned against single-use plastic.
Microplastics - what are they and where do they come from?
The trouble with plastic is that over time it doesn’t biodegrade and break down, it breaks up into tiny pieces of microplastics. Everything from discarded and lost fishing gear to the plastic products we use every day and throw away breaks up into microplastic. Before we understood the problem of microplastic, microbeads were deliberately created by cosmetic companies and used as exfoliants in facial scrubs, shower gels, cosmetics and toothpaste. These tiny beads have also been a huge source of microplastic pollution. But because we now know this we can take action and find alternatives…This month the ban on the sale of products containing microbeads becomes effective in the UK which is fantastic news.
The hidden threat of microfibers is now thought to be an even greater issue to our oceans. In a landmark study by Australian ecologist Dr Mark Browne, they constitute more than 85% of plastic pollution on the world’s shores.
Microfibres are tiny particles less than 1mm in size and often invisible to the naked eye. When synthetic clothes are washed, they release these tiny plastic particles.
One study found that a fleece jacket can shed as many as 250,000 fibres per wash contributing to as many as 700,000 fibres being released into the environment from one single washing machine load of man-made fibres!
These microfibers, leave the washing machine and travel down our drains, into our rivers and oceans. Here they’re ingested by creatures as small as plankton at the bottom of the food chain. But it’s not only these small organisms that have been found to contain microfibers, but they’ve also been found by researchers in fish and shellfish so we’re eating them too.
The extent of microplastic contamination throughout the world is becoming clear! It even exists in household dust coming from bedding and soft furnishings so if it’s floating around landing on our plates, we’re not only eating it but most certainly breathing it into our lungs too! The health consequences of this are yet to be understood.
Unlike natural fibres such as cotton and wool, synthetic fibres do not biodegrade. What’s worse is that they tend to absorb toxic chemicals such as pesticides and flame retardants often found in wastewater. This causes greater harm when ingested as the plastic tends to release those chemical pollutants and the conditions in the gut act as a catalyst speeding up that release. (Prof R Thompson, Plymouth Uni)
Where else have microfibres and fragments been found?
Bottled water – 93% of bottled water brands from 9 countries around the world were found to contain an average of 10 particles of plastic about the width of a human hair and a further 300 even tinier particles, in every litre of water sold. (Orb Media)
Tap water – 94% of tap water tested in the US contained microplastics, including Trump Tower in NY. The incidence was slightly lower in UK, Germany and France at 72%
Beer - in all 24 of the beer brands tested in Germany
Salt - in the UK, France, Spain, China and the US
Air - Paris 2015, microplastic found falling from the air, which was estimated at between 3-10 tonnes of fibres falling on the city each year and found in the air in people’s homes.
To Australian ecologist Dr Mark Browne, the problem of microfibers is far greater than that of microbeads, bags and bottles because they’re so much more abundant. They’re now found in all ocean organisms including fish in Sydney Harbour.
A recent study has been launched by Peter Ross, a scientist in Vancouver, to trace the source of synthetic fibres found in the ocean. Hopefully identifying the original source of the problem will encourage clothing and other textile manufacturers to design products in a way that looks at their whole lifecycle, the way they’re used, how they’re cared for and how long they last.
It’s not clear which synthetic fibres are the biggest culprits shedding the most fibres, acrylic, nylon or polyester. For this reason, it’s safer to stick to natural fibres which are bio-degradable and sustainable.
The key we believe is to choose well and buy things that last.
As Val, one of our customers posted on FB “All my sheets and towels come from Ecodownunder. I feel guilty I don’t spend more money with them, but everything lasts so dammed long, it just doesn’t wear out.”
We can all choose to change our buying habits, focus on buying clothes, bedding and soft furnishings made of natural fibres. You’ll find they are after all, much more comfortable to wear and to sleep in!