Why should we care about microplastics?
Plastic molecules mimic the female hormone oestrogen and can absorb contaminants in extremely high concentrations. So what happens when our ecosystem is flooded with these microplastics which will never ever, ever break down? The effects of this have yet to be fully quantified but we are starting to see the effects of the plastic saturation in our ecosystem. There have been studies which have linked plastic exposure to:
- hormonal imbalance
- increasing infertility
- degenerative disease, and
- behavioural issues.
And this is the thin edge of the wedge! Each plastic has its own equally horrifying list of side-effects which are too numerous to go into here. And that’s even before we consider the effects on wildlife.
Where can you find microplastics?
It’s now in our rivers and oceans, our rain, our fish, our salt, our food chain and – yes – our poos! In fact, 91% of marine particles and 92% of freshwater particles are actually microplastics now*. They’re coming down in the rain in the remotest parts of the world, they’re blown about the countryside, we are even inhaling them – as are any animals that we eat.
Microplastics in Table Salt
Microplastics in Spanish Sea Salt
“One of its main components, microplastics, has been found in several sea salt samples from different countries, indicating that sea products are irremediably contaminated by microplastics.”
But how do microplastics get into our ecosystem?
The truth is – we are all shedding plastic! There are lots of ways that microplastics get into our ecosystem, but the most prevalent and insidious is from our own wardrobes! Most of the clothes that we wear contain plastic fibres (nylon, rayon, acrylic, elastane, velour, fleece… ). Check your label now and see what you have on!
All plastic ever created still exists – even if it’s just so small the eye can’t see it – and we’ve been creating plastic commercially since the 1950s.
When we wash our clothes, tiny microscopic plastic fibres are shed, and these drain out of our washing machines and into our water systems. The filters at water-treatment plants are not fine enough to separate these out and so, for decades, plastic fibres have been streaming into our water systems unchecked.
What can I do about it?
On a personal level there are a lot of things we can do to reduce or stop altogether the plastic fibres we are shedding.
- Do you really need to wash that? The first step is to stop and think: does that item really need to be washed or could it be worn again! Simply cutting down the amount of washing you do helps on many levels – water use, chemical reduction, fewer microplastics, less power.
- Fill your washing machine up! Bigger washes have less friction and therefore shed fewer fibres.
- Go natural! When buying new, choose organic and natural fibres such as wool and organic cotton. When these shed into our ecosystem they provide value as they break down into nutrients! It’s worth noting, though, that fibres which are dyed unnaturally will be shedding chemicals which harms our aquatic life.
- Ditch fast fashion This is the worst culprit for volume and type of fibres being shed. Read our post Top 10 tips for ditching fast fashion to find out more!
- Keep your clothes longer! There is research to suggest that the worst of the shedding happens in the first 10 washes or so. Keeping hold of and looking after your clothes longer means you will be shedding less.
- Pop your jeans in the freezer! Did you know the freezer has a deodorising effect?! Yes, you can pop those smelly jeans in the freezer and they’ll come out fresh as a daisy avoiding extra washing / extra microfibre shedding!
- Use a Cora Ball (26%) or a Guppy Bag (99%) to trap many of the shed plastic fibres in your wash.
- Retrofit your washing machine with a filter to remove microplastics – this costs £109 to buy and probably a couple of hours work for a plumber to fit.
- Talk to people you know – the more we raise awareness of this, the more we can tackle the problem.
Let’s stem the flow at the source!
Despite this being a massive problem, not very many people are aware of it or taking steps to mitigate the risk. Manufacturers need to incorporate microplastic filters on all new washing machines, so that it’s not left up to the consumer.
But does such technology exist?!
There are companies able to provide the technology for pre-installed washing machine filters, such as Xeros, a company based in the UK who produce the XFiltra Technology. They advise that the cost would only be around £5-10 per machine and be as simple to use as emptying the lint filter on your tumble dryer.
Why isn’t this installed as standard on all washing machines?
There is currently nothing to enforce a manufacturer to install a filter and so they don’t bother. Sad but true! The technology already exists for washing machines but there’s no consumer pressure for them to add this technology and no legislation in place either.
But why is it up to us to pay?
We don’t believe the consumer should shoulder the cost as the situation is not created by individuals but by the system we find ourselves in. The money to pay for such a scheme could be shouldered by the clothing manufacturers using these shedding materials, or the shops selling them. The price of “fast fashion” is already too cheap which encourages disposable clothes, creating myriad of problems such as child labour, CO2 and water use and contributing to habitat destruction, biodiversity loss, insect armageddon, climate change… leading to food and water shortages…
So let’s add consumer pressure!
We believe so strongly in this that we created a petition to urge the government to make this legislation, and it looks like lots of you all agree! The petition was running just a week before smashing the 10,000 mark. This is great news as it will now warrant a response from the government. Next stop – 100,000?
Where do we put the lint we collect?
Filtering it is one thing, but what do we do with what we collect? Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy answer to the question of where to put these fibres to keep them out of our environment.
If we put the lint in our bins, what happens?
There is evidence to suggest that microplastics are present in the leachate (liquid by-product) from landfill too and so it’s not quite as simple as putting it in the bin.
So what are the other options?
You could do the same as I currently do with tumble dryer lint – use it as a firelighter. This has the unfortunate side effect of releasing dioxins into the atmosphere – albeit a minute amount.
You could put it in an ecobrick – which means taking personal responsibility to contain it.
If there is any message coming through loud and clear throughout my investigations, it’s simply this:
STOP BUYING SO MANY NEW CLOTHES!
The good news
There are people who really care about these issues such as inventor Adam Root – who are pursuing these fixes as we lament – including clever uses for the fibres we collect! Meantime we each must do what we can to stop the flow of microplastics.
Any step that you take to contain those fibres is better than allowing them free flow into our watercourses – even if at this stage it means putting it in the general waste bin.
- * Guardian article on microplastics from clothing
- Microplastics in every river in the UK
- National Geographic article on plastic in human feces
- National Geographic article about microplastics in the rain
- Article on Breast Cancer UK on how to minimise contact with plastic
- Unacceptable Levels – a documentary on chemical exposure
- The Story of Stuff – The Story of Microfibers
- Microplastics and microfibers in the sludge of a municipal wastewater treatment plant
- Young inventor Adam Root has a plan in mind!
- Washing machine filter to retrofit your machine for microsplastics
- Insect Armageddon – a guardian article outlining the problems of our disappearing insect population due to high weedkiller use and habitat loss.