Off the coast of Cullercoats, in northeast England, researchers Max Kelly and Priscilla Carrillo-Barragan send a long tubular net into the depths of the North Sea.
Known as a vertical tow, the net is used to collect samples of microscopic zooplankton, whose health can serve as a bellwether for an ocean’s overall wellbeing.
“A lot of our work is focused on polyester, and polyester is the most widely used synthetic fiber in the textile industry,” he says. “So we’re … looking at (what happens) when we wash clothes, what polyester fibers come off and wash down the drain pipes into the ocean where they can be ingested by a wide range by animals.”
Max Kelly, left, with Newcastle University marine microbiologist James Grant Burgess. Credit: Owen Humphreys/PA Images/Getty Images
“You go from washing machine into environment pretty easily,” Kelly adds.
According to Carrillo-Barragan, a research associate at Dove Marine Laboratory, the fibers have an immediate impact on the microorganisms themselves, on aspects such as feeding behavior, reproduction and larval development. This could, in turn, affect the health of the whole marine ecosystem.
“It’s been reported that instead of eating what they need, (microorganisms) are eating plastic so they don’t get the nutrients they need,” she explains. “And then, what the studies mention, is they don’t develop as they should.
“If you think of these (microorganisms) being at the base of the food web, then … they are food for other bigger species, and then they are not getting the nutrients they need. So it is, overall, a less nutritious cycle.”
Polymer yarn produced at a manufacturing facility in Lopburi, Thailand. Credit: Nicholas Axelrod/Bloomberg via Getty Images
There are fears that these plastic particles may eventually end up on our dinner tables. And while there are still many unanswered questions about bioaccumulation — a process whereby potentially toxic particles make their way up the food chain — Carrillo-Barragan sees worrying signs in the nascent research.
“It’s an early science,” she says. “We are just starting to do experiments on the possible effects that (microplastics) might have in all levels of life — including us.
“We don’t know exactly what is going to happen, or what will be the consequences. But we can tell that just by the abundance of (microfibers in the ocean) … that there might be something.”
Fast fashion’s impact
At the root of the problem is a global textile industry that Kelly says produces more than 40 million tons of synthetic fabrics a year. The vast majority of this is polyester clothing, he explains, while acknowledging the material’s many benefits.
“It’s a great material to make clothing,” he concedes. “It’s very breathable. It is used a lot for sports and outdoor activity. They dry really well and it’s a cheap material as well. It is very durable and lightweight.
“So it is ideal in terms of clothing. However … that durability makes it very difficult to degrade.”
The British researcher has been working with multinational corporation Proctor & Gamble, which makes detergents among much else, to investigate how individuals’ laundry habits may impact the number of microfibers released per wash. Their studies have found that delicate wash cycles can produce 800,000 more microfibers than regular ones.
Workers in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, prepare polyester polo shirts. Credit: The Washington Post/Getty Images
Neil Lant, a research fellow at the American firm, says that cold, quick wash cycles can help people reduce their plastic footprint. He also recommends only running full loads and using a high-efficiency washing machine.
The use of chemical detergents, fabric softener and stain removers, as well as the synthetic dyes released from clothes during washing, can all have a negative impact on the environment. But cutting down the amount of new clothing we buy may, in addition reducing textile waste, have the added benefit of lessening microfiber pollution.
“We found new clothing, was shedding much more fiber than older fabrics,” Lance says. “And we did testing of 60 washes to confirm this. That’s really important because it’s telling consumers another way that they can slow down fiber loss, and to significantly reduce the amount of fibers (released), is to buy less new clothing.
“It’ll help people financially and it’ll also be great for the environment. So we think everyone’s a winner. But it does involve a culture change for sure.”
Kelly adds, “People should care because we’ve all got to play our part. (If) we play our part, it’s going to equate to a big overall positive impact on the ocean.”
Watch the video above to learn more about Newcastle University’s research into the environmental impact of microfibers.