Massive MicroPlastic Pollution: Synthetic Clothing And Washing Machines Guilty

Researchers reported a startling discovery: In 11 national parks and protected areas in the western US, 1,000 metric tons of microfibers and microplastic particles fall from the sky each year, equivalent to over 120 million plastic water bottles—and that’s in just 6 percent of the country’s land area. Last month, another group described how the ocean is burping up microplastics, which then blow onshore via sea breezes. And last year, still more scientists reported that 7 trillion microplastic particles flow into the San Francisco Bay annually.

Scientists have known about microplastic pollution (technically, bits less than 5 millimeters long) for decades, but the almost unbelievable pervasiveness of the stuff in the environment has really become clear in just the last few years. Its ubiquity has coincided with the rise of fast fashion—cheap synthetic clothes that during each wash shed perhaps 100,000 microfibers, which then flow out to rivers and oceans through wastewater. (Consider that 70 years ago, the textile and clothing industries used 2 million tons of synthetic materials; that figure had skyrocketed to almost 50 million tons by 2010.) Everywhere scientists look, these microfibers turn up; they’re blowing into the Arctic and to the tops of (formerly) pristine mountaintops. In that study of US protected areas, 70 percent of the synthetic particles researchers trapped in their samples were microfibers.

There’s simply no putting the plastic back in the bottle; once it’s out in the environment, it just breaks into smaller and smaller bits, infiltrating ever more nooks and crannies. But a growing number of environmentalists and scientists want to hold those responsible for microfiber pollution—largely the fashion industry and makers of washing machines—to account, and to stem the flow of tiny plastics into Earth’s systems.

Nearly 13,000 tons of microfibers may be entering the marine environment just from Europe’s countries alone,” says Nicholas Mallos, senior director of the Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program. “Scaled globally, other estimates say maybe 250,000 tons of plastics via microfibers are entering our waterways and oceans. So those are not insignificant numbers, even though we’re talking about a very, very small vector of pollution.”