A first-of-its-kind study in California has laid bare the staggering scale of pollution from plastic microfibers in synthetic clothing – one of the most widespread, yet largely invisible, forms of plastic waste.
The report, whose findings were revealed exclusively by the Guardian, found that in 2019 an estimated 4,000 metric tons – or 13.3 quadrillion fibers – were released into California’s natural environment. The plastic fibers, which are less than 5mm in length, are primarily shed when we wash our yoga pants, stretchy jeans and fleece jackets and can easily enter oceans and waterways.
“The findings were nothing short of shocking,” said Alexis Jackson, fisheries project director at the Nature Conservancy in California, which commissioned the study from a research team at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The study has not yet been peer reviewed or published.
Many picture ocean plastic pollution as large debris such as bags, straws and bottles, but in fact the majority consists of tiny particles that accumulate in tiny organisms and rise in the food chain.
Their size makes it easy for them to collect in everything from plants to plankton. A recent study found that 73% of fish caught at mid-ocean depths in the Atlantic had microplastic in their stomachs.
The number – 13.3 quadrillion – is tricky to wrap one’s mind around, so the study’s authors have made more digestible comparisons: it’s as many fibers as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy. It’s also equivalent to 80m rubber duckies’ worth of plastic polluting the state every year.
Thousands of plastic microfibers are shed when synthetic clothes get washed. The microfibers then surf through washing machines and end up in the wastewater stream. A 2016 study showed that an average-sized load of laundry could release more than 700,000 fibers into wastewater, though how much is shed depends on several factors: the type of garment, materials used, wash temperature and detergent. Currently, there are no washing machine filters that catch the particles.
Video: Giant “vacuum cleaner” for tiny plastic waste (Reuters)
These synthetic materials are unknown to the natural environment, so microbes and other creatures have not evolved to deal with them, says Roland Geyer, an industrial ecologist at UC Santa Barbara who collaborated on the report. “We are introducing these synthetic materials into the environment at a much larger scale than we initially thought. And that has people worried about the longer term environmental and health consequences.”
To come up with the final tally, the team combined data on synthetic fiber consumption with estimates of how often people wash their clothes, and how much those clothes shed in each wash. Then they used California-specific sludge and wastewater management information to follow the fibers and predict how many end up in bodies of water, landfills, incinerators or spread on land.
Wastewater plants have the ability to capture the fibers, but there’s