How laundry is spilling plastics into the ocean

Written by Oscar Holland, CNNEdward Scott-Clarke, CNNCullercoats, UK

Contributors Nina Avramova, CNN

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.

Newcastle University’s Dove Marine Laboratory has been collecting microorganisms from these waters for the last 50 years, shedding light on the impact of changing nutrient levels and global warming. But now experts are studying the samples to examine a growing but almost invisible threat to our seas: plastic microfibers.
Microplastics (those measuring up to 5 millimeters in diameter) make up almost a fifth of the 8 million tons of plastic that ends up in the oceans each year. Of these, miniscule strands known as microfibers — which largely come from synthetic clothing — are the most common, according to Kelly, who researches marine biotechnology at the university.

“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.

Max Kelly, left, with Newcastle University marine microbiologist James Grant Burgess. Credit: Owen Humphreys/PA Images/Getty Images

Every time we do our laundry, our clothes shed millions of microfibers. Although wastewater treatment plants are able to catch as much as 99% of them, the rest can eventually flow into rivers, waterways and, ultimately, the ocean.

“You go from washing machine into environment pretty easily,” Kelly adds.

Invisible threat

With Monday marking World Oceans Day, much attention will be paid to the impact of plastic bags, bottles and discarded fishing nets on marine life. But while these pollutants pose serious threats to larger animals, it’s microplastics that disrupt life at the very bottom of the food chain.

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.

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.

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.

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