We’re all familiar with the sad images of plastic bags lining beaches and being emptied out of the stomachs of marine life, but what if there was a waste product that was so small, it was actually getting into the internal organs of marine life, and becoming part of our food chain?
In 2011, an alarming study came out from ecologist Mark Browne that showed that 85% of the man-made waste on beaches was actually smaller than a bottle cap — tiny fibers, shed from our clothing, bedding, and laundry, into the water supply.
These tiny fibers, known as microplastics, are less than 5mm in length, and are believed to enter the world’s oceans and water supplies through wastewater runoff from washing machines. Since they’re synthetic, they never really break down, and continue to swirl and accumulate into ocean gyres, infiltrating and amassing in ecosystems.
During his research, Browne observed that approximately 1,900 tiny fibers were released from washing a single garment — just one jacket, shirt, or pair of pants. He concluded after these findings that a large portion of the microplastics filling the oceans are likely coming from wastewater from washing machines.
A Growing Problem
The unfortunate reality is that this is a problem that is very much expected to grow. As market demand continues to rise for affordable clothing and bedding, regardless of the origin or environmental concerns associated with synthetic fibers, the volume of microplastics in our oceans is expected to continue rising.
Fibers from fabrics like nylon, polyester, and rayon are derived from petroleum, and aside from being energy-intensive in their production, are designed to last, which means it takes them a long time to break down — from decades to several centuries, depending on the conditions.
With an ever expanding market for cheap clothing and a slew of textiles that take a long time to break down, if even in our lifetimes, the question remains: How do we slow the flow of microplastics into our oceans?
Reducing Microplastics in Our Oceans
After his research, Browne approached several large companies, imploring them to look into more sustainable, ecologically compatible fibers for their product lines. The catch 22 quickly became that these companies wanted more research and evidence to prove that products like what they were currently selling were contributing to the problem, which meant Browne needed further funding for his work to collect that data.
The bottom line remains, for now, that until further research can be done into the connection between clothing and the microplastics in our oceans, it’s going to be up to the consumers (us!) to source more ecologically friendly clothing and and bedding.
Eco-Friendly Textiles to Try
Eliminating synthetic textiles from your home isn’t something that happens overnight, but every little bit helps (just think: replacing one shirt could save 1,900 microplastic fibers from the ocean).
Here are a few fabrics to start seeking out as you make the transition away from toxic synthetic fibers to more biocompatible ones:
Soft, breathable, and affordable. Always spring for organic if you can — cotton is one of the largest consumers of pesticides worldwide.
Insulative and naturally antimicrobial. The care and maintenance of pure wool can be challenging at first, but don’t let it scare you off — wool is the cast iron of fabrics, and is built to last.
Soft and versatile, bamboo is similar to wool in that it wicks moisture away from the skin and is naturally antimicrobial, but much softer and easier to care for.
Though it can be expensive, it’s a beautiful fabric, perfect for sleepwear and warmer climes.
Similar to cotton in its texture and appearance, hemp is a versatile plant that produces a high yield for a very small footprint.
Slightly coarser than cotton, flax is lightweight and breathable.
Other Ways to Reduce Your Microplastic Output
Before you go on a shopping spree for a bunch of new clothes and sheets, look into getting a filter put on your washing machine to keep those microplastics from making their way into the water supply in the first place.
A Canadian mechanical engineer actually came up with a solution when he had issues with his septic system and realized the fibers from his washing machine were to blame. Blair Jollimore invented the Lint Luv-r, a simple filter that can be installed in-line to capture fibers before they make their way into a septic system.
Aside from filtering your washing machine wastewater, you can also consider your flooring choices to reduce your input of microplastics. Carpets shed a tremendous amount of fibers when shampooed, so if you don’t absolutely have to have them, consider getting a natural fiber, or going with hardwoods.
The Future of Microplastics in Our Oceans
Is it a problem? Is there anything we can do about it? What are the most effective solutions? So far, all we have are half-answers. The bottom line is that more research is needed to fully determine the extent and cause of this waste, and what we can do to effectively reduce the issue.
As the quest continues for more research and reliable funding, all we as consumers can do is make the most conscientious choices possible to ensure that we’re doing everything we can to lessen our impact on the world’s oceans.
Were you aware of the dangers of microplastics? Want to join us in making a small change today? Let us know by tagging us with @avocadomattress or #avocadomattress on Facebook or Instagram.
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