Just when you thought our worldwide problems — from a pandemic to climate change — couldn’t get any bigger, they’re also getting smaller.

Microplastics are made from the millions of tons of plastics that are produced each year and don’t break down into organic components the way an orange or a piece of paper do. Those plastics just break down into smaller and smaller pieces (and plastics can take up to hundreds of years to break down completely). Pieces smaller than five millimeters are called microplastics, and they are everywhere.

Recently, the environmental advocacy group PennEnvironment released the results of a survey of Pennsylvania’s waterways — and found microplastics pollution in every single one of the 53 waterways measured.

One huge source of the microplastics problem? Microfibers, which are found in the fabric of many types of clothing.

“There are a lot of things that are bad about microfibers,” says Olivia Vanistendael, who has worked in fabric development for Levi’s in San Francisco and Dick’s Sporting Goods in Pittsburgh.

“For one, they are plastic and therefore relatively indestructible. Even when they ‘break down’ over time, they are simply becoming smaller pieces that are more difficult to detect and collect and are easier to consume (by animals and humans). Microplastics are also petroleum-based, meaning they are rooted in (fossil fuel) extraction.”

Some clothing is made of natural fibers such as cotton, linen and wool. The microfiber problem comes from man-made synthetic fibers such as polyester, nylon, spandex, fake leather and anything elastic. Most so-called fast fashion garments are made from these materials, which are all petroleum-based. There are also semi-man-made (cellulosic) fibers, such as rayon, that originally come from wood pulp from trees but are heavily processed with chemicals.

Image via loveyourclothes.org.uk.

The problem occurs when we do the laundry.

Microfibers from these synthetic materials are knocked loose in the washing machine and are too tiny to be filtered out before reaching the wastewater stream.

A single jacket can shed as many as 250,000 microfibers per wash. Wastewater treatment plants can filter out 98-99%, but that leftover 1-2% still means that millions of microfibers reach waterways.

They wind up in rivers, lakes and oceans, and act like sponges, combining with and sucking up other pollutants around them. They also get consumed by fish — which, in turn, are consumed by us.

The impact on humans is unclear, says the World Health Organization, which published a report on microplastics recently. What is known is the negative impact on aquatic life, which has a direct impact on our food supply.

What can be done?

  • Wash your clothes less frequently. “One big thing is to wash your clothes less,” says Anna Argentine, an educator and researcher who worked as a textile teacher in Stockholm before coming back to Pittsburgh.
  • Wash in cold water. Washing in hot water causes breakage, knocking microfibers off clothing. So when you do wash, a cold water setting is best.
  • Avoid using dryers as much as possible. “It’s much better to hang and air dry your clothes than to use the really hot dryer — all that tumbling around is also wearing out all those fibers,” says Argentine.
  • Change your shopping habits. “Limiting the amount of synthetic clothing that you buy and wear is key to solving this issue long-term,” says Vanistendael. “Synthetic clothing is not good for the environment at any point of its lifecycle.”
  • Certain filtering products can help catch microfibers in the wash. These include the Filtrol washing machine filter, the Cora Ball and the GuppyFriend washing bag.

Some of these changes require doing some work. Others — such as doing less laundry — actually require doing less work.

“Especially in the U.S., we’re kind of obsessed with cleanliness, so we wash our clothes way more than necessary,” says Argentine. “Jeans hardly ever need to be washed. Of course, your underwear — do wash that regularly. But most clothes we don’t need to wash as much as we do. It’s fine just to air-dry them; just hang them so they get aired out a bit until you wear them again.”

Image via loveyourclothes.org.uk.

There are a number of statewide efforts to combat the problem of microplastics, and plastic pollution in general.

PennEnvironment is advocating for the reduction in single-use plastics via legislation. The Clean Air Council and PennEnvironment also filed a motion to intervene this week to overturn the state legislature’s preemption of local laws meant to cut down single-use plastic waste and litter. The desired outcome is to let local governments make their own rules about plastic waste.