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 microplastics added to personal care products (toothpaste, skin scrubs, makeup, 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.
However, microplastics are not only used in cosmetic products; they are also widely present in most of our synthetic clothes.
Synthetic materials used in clothes such as polyester, acrylic and nylon represent about 60% of the clothing material worldwide. Out of this 60% of synthetic material, the most used one is polyester. When washed, these clothes shed tiny fibers, called microplastics, that will go down the drain. Microfibers cannot be retrieved through wastewater treatment plants and, therefore, end up in the ocean.
Washing machines and clothing made with synthetic fibers have changed the world in the past decades. The washing machine has brought us clean laundry without intensive labor and increased our personal hygiene. Synthetic textiles have brought a diverse range of attractive and (especially) affordable clothing. We now know that the combination of both contributes to one of the biggest environmental problems or our time: the plastic soup. As the human population grows and people use more washing machines and synthetic textiles, contamination of habitats, animals, and even humans by microplastics is likely to increase.
According to a report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), plastic particles washed off products such as synthetic clothes contribute to 35% of the plastic polluting our oceans. Recent research has also proven that we are eating and drinking plastic and that plastic fibers are literally raining down from the sky. We are also breathing in between 13,000 and 68,000 plastic microfibers from our clothing, carpets, curtains and other textiles per year.
Therefore, we must live with the fact that microfibers are a big part of the so called ‘plastic smog’. Microfibers have been found in fish, plankton, chicken, sea salt, beer, honey and in tap as well as bottled water, as well as in the air.
The consequences of the pervasiveness of microfibers polluting the environment are clearly disastrous to animals and humans, and clothing brands and manufacturers need to take responsibility. This is the reason why Plastic Soup Foundation launched the Ocean Clean Wash campaign.