How Microfibers Can Damage the Environment

Did you know that microfibers can be found in many household products and clothing, and can have a negative impact on our environment? Microfibers are a micro-plastic, defined as pieces of plastic less than 5mm long. More specifically, microfibers are miniscule fragments of a type of plastic used to make synthetic fabrics including polyester, rayon, and acrylics, or blends of these with natural materials. These fabrics are found in active wear, fleece, and even underwear, and the trouble is that during a wash cycle, fibers from those fabrics go down the drain into our sewage system.

Since wastewater treatment plants are not designed to catch tiny fibers, they are released into our oceans, rivers, and lakes. The Story of Stuff explains that these microfibers in water actually act as mini sponges, soaking up toxic substances like oils, pesticides, and industrial chemicals. Currently, the extent of this pollution is unknown, but there is already significant impact. For example, when aquatic animals ingest these pellets, the toxins can be absorbed into their tissues and cause gut impaction, hormone disruption, and liver damage.

So what can we do? Some suggest wearing only natural fabrics like wool, cotton, and hemp, though 60% of all clothing is made of synthetic fabrics. Others suggest improvements for washing machines and wastewater treatment plants. This still wouldn’t be addressing the issue at its source and those responsible for the production of these fabrics: the manufacturers. As citizens we ought to exercise our rights to tackle this issue and pressure companies and the government to find a solution.

Thankfully, steps have been taken to prevent other forms of microplastics, specifically microbeads, from contaminating our oceans. Congress passed a law in 2015, banning “rinse-off” plastic microbead products that have an exfoliating function like toothpaste, face wash and other cosmetic products. Yet, a loophole in the law still allows other non “rinse-off” products as well as cleaning products. For example, there are still make-up products and detergents with microbeads that are not covered under this law. One action we can all take is to stop buying products containing microbeads. To find out if a product contains these beads, check the label for “polyethylene” (PE) or “polystyrene” (PS). The organization Beat the Microbead has a list of products known to contain the beads.

by Alicia Doung, Newton South High School Student