In today’s world, synthetic fibers are ubiquitous in our clothing. Their popularity is not without reason: these petroleum-based fibers are often cheaper than their natural counterparts and their versatility can enhance clothing design. There is, however, a much darker side to this story: meet the microfibers.
What are microfibers?
Microfibers are tiny plastic fibers that are released by synthetic fabrics in the washing machine. Thanks to their microscopic size, they travel from the drain of your washing machine, past sewage treatment works and into our rivers and oceans. In fact, it’s thought that around 35% of the microplastics found in oceans originate from synthetic fabrics.
What’s so bad about microfibers?
Microfibers are essentially a form of plastic pollution and are a serious threat to our environment. When they’re eaten by fish and other aquatic animals, they often damage the animals’ organs and cells, causing serious health problems. Microfibers can release toxic chemicals too, which can make aquatic animals unable to reproduce normally or fight off diseases.
What’s more, these microfibers can accumulate up the food chain and end up on our plates: It’s already been estimated that Europeans eat 11,000 pieces of plastic every year. And it’s not just in the seafood that we’re eating- scientists have found microfibers in our drinking water and even in the air we’re breathing in! Although we still need a lot more research on the health impacts in humans, microfibers and plastic pollution are clearly a huge problem that we can’t ignore anymore.
So, what’s the solution?
For shoppers, washing clothes with synthetic fabrics less often and buying fewer of them is a great start: Just a single cycle of a washing machine can release more than 700,000 microfibers into the environment.
From the production perspective, an obvious solution is to use natural fibers which don’t shed plastic fibers, like linen, cotton and wool. These come with the added advantage of being biodegradable, but also present other environmental challenges: Cotton, for example, is notorious for being a very water-intensive crop. So, although natural fibers are a great alternative, they need to be carefully produced to increase their sustainability.
In truth, it’s unlikely that we can completely get rid of synthetic fibers: natural fibers simply cannot replace synthetic fibers, given the huge amount of clothes we produce today. Companies have developed filters and other products that can reduce the amount of microfibers leaving washing machines- this is definitely useful, but doesn’t address the heart of the problem.
For real change to happen, sustainability and durability need to become a key focus in clothes manufacturing and design. As for consumers, our attitude towards buying and consuming is key, especially in the age of mass consumption and fast fashion: Reduced consumption ultimately leads to less waste. At the end of the day, it is only by being responsible with our own consumption that we stand a chance at combating complex challenges like microfiber pollution.