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Microfibers Are the New Microbeads. Grab Your Pitchforks

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Without synthetic, plasticky fabrics, we’d have no yoga pants for yoga-ing, no stretchy socks, no water-wicking sweatshirts. We may wear these plastic-infused clothes once, throw them in the washing machine, and repeat, each cycle shedding perhaps 100,000 synthetic fibers. Many of the particles end up getting dumped into rivers and oceans, where they’re embedding in animals and swirling in the water column and sticking in sediment—virtually immortal artifacts for our distant descendants to one day dig up.

In 2015, Congress banned microbeads, those little bits of plastic used in face scrubs that companies thought would be A-okay for the environment, but instead ended up tainting the world so thoroughly that the public shamed the industry to change. In the short few years since then, more and more research has shown just how pervasive other microplastic pollution has become: Bits of synthetic fiber like polyester have been blowing to the tops of mountains and into the Arctic and washing into watersheds like the San Francisco Bay, which collects 7 trillion microplastic particles every year. You’re drinking a good amount of the stuff, in fact.

The time has come to make microfibers the new microbeads. But keeping the tiny plastics out of the environment won’t be so easy as an outright ban—synthetic textiles, like plastics in general, are now indispensable in modern life. Instead, we’ve got to get smarter about synthetic clothing, demanding action from the fashion industry as well as manufacturers of washing machines. The movement has begun, so get ready to hear a lot more of the word “shedability.”

“It’s reaching a crescendo with every new study that comes out that shows that microplastics are in our food, in our drinking water,” says Nick Lapis, director of advocacy for Californians Against Waste. “I think it’s going to reach a point of no return where people say I don’t want to be consuming plastic, and I think we’re close to there.”

To get a sense of the scale of this problem, let’s bring it down to a single city: Toronto. One study calculated that a single load of laundry might shed 91,000 to 138,000 microfibers. The city’s 1.2 million households do an annual average of 219 loads. So each year, Toronto could be washing 23 to 36 trillion microfibers into its wastewater. True, wastewater treatment sequesters somewhere between 83 to 99.9 percent of microplastics from the input, depending on what facility and what study you’re looking at, but that would still mean 234 to 356 billion microfibers flowing into the environment each year from one city.

And the problem is getting worse. The rise of so-called fast fashion—cheap, crappy clothing meant to last but a moment—has flooded the market with garments that easily fray and more readily shed synthetic fibers. In 1950, the textile and clothing industries used about 2 million tons of synthetic materials; by 2010 it had climbed to 50 million tons. Stretchy jeans, socks, undies—you name it, and it’s probably made at least partly of synthetic materials.

A picture is still emerging of what all this microplastic pollution amounts to. In August, the WHO reported that we’re all drinking heaps of microplastics. It’s still too early to say that’s a bad thing, but it’s also too early to say it’s not a bad thing.

“One of the challenges is demonstrating there actually is harm from microfibers,” says Marcus Eriksen, research director of the 5 Gyres Institute. “If you can’t show definitive proof that this causes pain to someone, people are going to say, Why change? I’ve always argued that it’s so ubiquitous that we really don’t have the luxury of waiting until a problem happens.”

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