Plastic that ends up in the environment does not biodegrade, it fragmentizes into smaller pieces. These tiny pieces, or microplastics, are <5mm and usually not visible to the naked eye. They also cannot be blocked through the waste water treatment plants and, consequently, microplastics end up in rivers, lakes, seas and oceans.
In some cases, these microplastics are already manufactured in a small size, like microbeads from personal care products (toothpaste, skin scrubs, etc). In 2012, Plastic Soup Foundation started the campaign Beat the Microbead to force manufacturers to phase out plastic microbeads from their personal care products and replace them with natural compostable alternatives, with very successful results until now.
However, microplastics are not only used in cosmetic products; they are also widely present in most of our garments. Materials such as nylon, acrylic, and PET are used in clothing for many different reasons. The negative effect is that during washing and centrifuging of the garments, micro- and nanoplastic fibers are released and end up in rivers, seas, and oceans. Both washing machines and water treatment plants are not (yet) equipped to filter these synthetic microfibers out of the wastewater.
For the first time, reliable scientific research on different types of synthetic clothing, provided by the Mermaids Life+ program, shows the amount of plastic fibers that are released in washing processes. Without intervention, the amount of fibers that are released via the sewer into our waterways will increase significantly in the near future: 30% of the world population is already doing laundry with a washing machine, and the remaining 70% will buy a machine as soon as they have the chance. In 2010, 2 billion out of 7 billion people were using a washing machine; in 2050, that number is predicted to jump to 5 billion (Rosling, 2010).
Recent research in the framework of EU-funded Life+ Project “Mermaids, Ocean Clean Wash,” on mitigation of the environmental impact of microplastics caused by textile washing processes shows that more fibers are being released than previous research from 2011 suggested. Browne et al. demonstrated in 2011 that a single garment can produce >1,900 fibers per wash (Browne, M.A, et al. 2011). The Mermaids project disclosed its first results in August 2015, and it showed that 228 to 4,566 fibers/gram were released per wash. A 500-g fleece jacket releases between 114,000 and 2,283,000 fibers (depending on composition and washing conditions). The partners in this project are Leitat (Spain), CNR (Italy), Polysistec (Spain), and PSF (The Netherlands), who is in charge of the dissemination, communication, and contact with the media.
In September 2016, researchers Napper and Thompson from the University of Plymouth published a reserch paper where they tested the loss of fibers when washing clothing made from polyester, acryl and a mixture of polyester and cotton at different temperatures (30 and 40 degrees) and using different detergents. The English study was published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin and confirms earlier findings by Mermaids that hundreds of thousands of fibers may be lost with every wash, more than 700,000 plastic fibers for every 6 kg of laundry, according to the British researchers. This study is the latest evidence of the seriousness of the situation regarding the number of synthetic microfibers that are lost during laundry processes.
As the human population grows and people use more washing machines and synthetic textiles, contamination of habitats and animals by synthetic fibers is likely to increase. Leading scientists such as Vethaak, Leslie, and Thompson are warning about the potentially harmful effects of this insidious process for ecosystems and human health.
Environmental effects and consequences of synthetic micro fiber release
The plastic fibers, that are only visible with sophisticated microscopes, are present in the environment; in zooplankton and other species such as sea cucumbers, shore crabs, mussels and lugworms. They can also be found at the bottom of the sea and in our food (seafood, oysters, fish, honey and cane sugar, and salt).
Potential effect on human health
Microplastic transfer from prey to predator through the food chain has been clearly demonstrated. Preliminary studies concluded that plastics can enter the human bloodstream and can cross the human placenta, possibly exposing the developing fetus to these particles. Plastic particles are likely to be absorbed by human tissue.