Microplastics: The Bane of All Creatures, Great and Small

Microplastics are fragments of any type of plastic[1] less than 5 mm (0.20 in) in length, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)[2][3] and the European Chemicals Agency.[4] They cause pollution by entering natural ecosystems from a variety of sources, including cosmetics, clothing, and industrial processes. (See: Wikipedia Online, accessed 8/7/2021: Microplastics…)

By definition, microplastic is simply plastic of a very small particle size from Nanoplastics no more than .0001mm in size up to Mesoplastics of 200 mm as defined by NOAA on the following chart: 

Chart: Our World in Data, online, accessed 8/1/2021, ourworldindata.org › faq-on-plastics FAQs on Plastics

Microplastic can arise through primary or secondary processes. Primary microplastics are already of a small size at the time of production: common sources include fibres, pellets, microbeads, and capsules; whereas secondary microplastics form from the breakdown of larger plastic products. Once plastic makes its way into our rivers and ocean waters or is exposed to sunlight, physical or ultraviolet (UV) weathering occurs, thereby breaking them into smaller particles. These particles slip through sewage treatment and wind up in our surface waters (rivers, lakes and coastal waters) and eventually into our oceans.

The largest source of microplastic pollution comes from the breakdown of the textiles and clothing we wear, of which, the percentage was 35% in 2017, the second source is from the tires on our vehicles according to the same study:

Fashion Revolution, Online accessed 8/7/2021 https://www.fashionrevolution.org/our-clothes-shed-microfibres-heres-what-we-can-do

The immediate solution to the pollution from the tires on our transportation is to rely less on single vehicular use and opt for mass-transit choices; carpooling, buses, streetcar lines and trains. When it comes to our clothing, we need to influence an entire industry as well as the consumers to make major changes.  

‘Fast Fashion’ spoke to the ego of the consumer of the 1980s and exploded into a major market share by the 1990s. As the income of the average household grew, the middle income consumer found they had more expendable income on hand and the fashion industry answered with the production of high-style clothing at affordable prices. Copies mimicking the look of high-fashion designer wear were mass-produced using the synthetic fabrics that were cheaper to manufacture. The development of these “plastic” fabrics are less than 100 years old with the first synthetic fiber, Nylon, being made from petroleum products in 1938 then followed by Polyester (PET, 1953), Spandex (co-polymer, 1958) and finally, Kevlar (para-aramid, in 1965 (and also found in tires). All of these synthetic fibers were developed by the DuPont Corporation.

The following chart illustrates the amount of potential fiber lost in the washing machine, with polyester-cotton blends losing the least amount. For polyester fabric, the loss is highest with the first washing and gradually decreases until the 5th washing when the count once again rises (possibly early deterioration of the fibers). The less expensive the clothing the faster it deteriorates. Acrylics fare a little better, less loss than from polyester, gradual decrease without showing an increase by the fifth wash. The poly-cotton blends fared much better with a slight increase in the 5th wash, but a lower fiber loss overall.

Source:  Vox Online, accessed 8/7/2021, Ocean plastic pollution: why our clothes are part of the problem

All clothing, as well as all textiles, loses fiber when going through the wash cycle, but the dividing factor comes in the difference between natural fiber and synthetic fibers:

Natural fibers are made from plant and animal by-products; linen, cotton, flax, hemp, bamboo, silk and wool are examples of natural fibers. They are renewable and non-toxic in their natural state. Natural fibers will breakdown without harm to the environment. In their natural state they are safe yet, the dyeing process, which can also be from a chemical/petroleum base, can still make these fabrics dangerous to the ecosystem.

Synthetic fibers are manufactured from oil/chemical based material;  polyester, acrylic, rayon, and microfiber are examples of synthetic fibers. They may be cheaper but are non-renewable, and not sustainable which is problematic. The manufacturing process is toxic, from production of the fiber through the dye process. It can take decades to hundreds of years for some of these fibers to degrade, while leaving their toxins to leach into the soil and groundwater (employees of the garment industry have a high rate of respiratory disease with some data showing microfibers imbedded in their lungs).

So what happens once microfibers get into the ecosystem? This is a long exhaustive subject best left to the experts to explain, so this is just a short version: 

Lab studies have shown that microplastics have been found in plankton. Fish that feed on plankton were found not only to be affected by the microfiber but also by the toxins within the fibers as the fish accumulated the chemicals in their biome. Fish enter the food chain and eventually make it to our dining tables. But that is not all of it. In addition to seafood, “Humans consume microfibers via bottled and tap water, salt, beer,” (see; Humans, fish and other organisms are consuming microfibers). Microplastics have even been found in human urine.

We have just presented the tip of this large issue. It is but one issue of hundreds that are affecting our ecosystem. We strongly urge everyone to read up on the harm that plastic is doing, not only to our environment but to our very health. Things we can all do: write to your representatives;  write to manufacturers who continue to escalate the problems we are seeing from plastics; boycott plastic products and replace them with more sustainable products; even the simplest solution is to reuse a cloth bag for the grocery store.

Once it becomes a habit you won’t miss the paper/plastic bags from the stores; your natural fiber clothing can potentially last longer than the cheap fast fashions, and consider making your own DIY products from sustainable sources that are chemically free. This process will be covered in a future article as I share what I have personally done to practice sustainability in my lifestyle.

Suggested readings for futher information: 

O’Connor, Mary Katherine, Humans, fish and other organisms are consuming microfibers 2 July 2018. [Online resource] accessed 8/7/2021.  See also: Ensia, the Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota Ensia | Vital reporting on our changing planet

Ritchie, Hannah and Max Roser (2018) – Plastic Pollution. Published online at OurWorldInData.org.  Retrieved from: Plastic Pollution  [Online Resource] accessed 8/7/2021.

Somer, Sienna, Our clothes shed microfibres – here’s what we can do, 2020. Accessed online 8/7/2021: Fashion Revolution Online, Our clothes shed microfibres – here’s what we can do… – Fashion Revolution

Woods, Steven, A Comparison of the Environmental Cost of Natural and Synthetic Fabrics, Unsustainable Magazine, accessed online 8/7/2021The Environmental Cost of Natural vs Synthetic Fabric   See also: https://www.unsustainablemagazine.com