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Microplastics are small pieces of plastic pollutants, and today, one major source of microplastics is the fashion industry. Microplastics are created from the deterioration of synthetic fabrics, such as polyester, polyamide, acrylic, and polypropylene (Lim et. al, 2022). Natural fabrics like cotton, bamboo, wool, and silk deteriorate in the same way that synthetic fabrics do, but instead of releasing microplastics, they release biodegradable fiber fragments. Synthetic fabrics release fiber fragments as well, but because they are made out of plastic, these fiber fragments also fall in the microplastics category.
Synthetic fabrics release microplastics during the manufacturing, wearing, and washing processes. According to one study conducted by Lim et. al. in 2022, the manufacturing process releases the most microplastics 49%, while the washing process releases 28% and the wearing process releases 23% of microplastics. Interestingly, different types of washing machines affect how many microplastics are released.op-loading washers use an agitator to move clothes throughout the water in the machine, while front-loading machines use a fan-like mechanism called a pulsator that pushes water back and forth through the clothes in the machine (Lindland and Hampshire, 2021). Top-loading machines create more friction and are rougher on fabrics, releasing about 9 times more microplastics than a front-loading washing machine (Periyasamy and Tehrani-Bagha, 2022, p.6). Released microplastics from sources like washing machines pose a health hazard, due to their ability to bioaccumulate.
Fiber fragments, especially plastic ones, are particularly harmful because they can get almost anywhere, from inside the bodies of humans and animals to food webs and ecosystems. One study conducted with lung cancer patients found that 87% of them had fiber fragments in their lungs (Periyasamy and Tehrani-Bagha, 2022). This isn’t surprising given that airborne fiber fragments are extremely common, especially indoors. A different study looked into the distribution of airborne fiber fragments, finding that, “overall, 1–60 fibers/m3 fiber fragments were observed indoors compared with a considerably lower amount of 0.3 to 1.5 fibers/m3 outdoors. 67% of detected fibers were [natural] and the rest of them were synthetic fibers” (Periyasamy and Tehrani-Bagha, 2022). Although most airborne fragments are natural, such as dust particles, they are still lung irritants. Even worse, fiber fragments and microplastics often end up in the ocean where they are consumed by fish and other animals, in effect harming wildlife and polluting one of our main food sources.
Fiber fragments and microplastics are a problem, but what can the average person do to help? One cannot completely eliminate their “microplastic footprint,” but there are some simple ways to reduce it. One can use a microplastic-filtering laundry bag when washing clothes, especially for the first 5 washes of synthetic fabrics because this is when they release the most microplastics (Lim et. al, 2022). Using a washing machine with a pulsator and not an agitator, and washing at low temperatures is also helpful. Lastly, because clothes deteriorate faster in landfills and thus create more fiber fragments, it is important to avoid throwing out clothes, and instead upcycle, recycle or donate them for the longest life possible (Periyasamy and Tehrani-Bagha, 2022). The fashion industry, especially fast fashion, is not known for being environmentally friendly– but individuals can look for options that have a much lower environmental impact than others.
Lim, J., Choi, J., Won, A. et al. Cause of microfibers found in the domestic washing process of clothing; focusing on the manufacturing, wearing, and washing processes. Fash Text 9, 24 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40691-022-00306-8
Lindland, Rebecca and Hampshire, Kristen. “Front Load Versus Top Load Washers”. US News, 2021,https://www.usnews.com/360-reviews/home-goods/washing-machines/front-vs-top-load-washers.
Periyasamy, Aravin Prince and Tehrani-Bagha, Ali. “A review on microplastic emission from textile materials and its reduction techniques”, Polymer Degradation and Stability, Volume 199, 2022, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.polymdegradstab.2022.109901.