How washing your clothes is polluting the ocean

Tiny fibres from our clothes are escaping our washing machines and winding up in the air, water, fish and us, scientists say.
Every time clothes are washed, the fabric sheds microfibres that end up in our waterways and contribute to plastic pollution. (Teh Eng Koon/AFP/Getty Images)
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Tiny fibres from our clothes are escaping our washing machines and winding up in the air, water, fish and us, scientists say.

Ocean conservation organization Ocean Wise recently reported that the bulk of particles examined from Vancouver waters were microfibres, such as polyester and rayon from clothing and carpets.

Microfibres are found in synthetic fabrics that naturally shed. When clothes are washed, microfibres end up in waters through sewer systems and wastewater treatment plants.

Until 2011, there were no scientific techniques to measure microfibres and questions on their long-term impact remain, according to Lisa Erdle, a PhD student studying microfibres at the University of Toronto's Rochman Lab.

"We don't, for example, know if our synthetic clothes are worse than natural fibres. If zooplankton eats a piece of polyester, is it worse than eating a piece of cotton? There are different dyes and chemicals associated with both and we don't really know what the effects are."

Lisa Erdle is studying two species of fish from Lake Huron and Lake Ontario and says she found as many as 100 microfibres per fish in her research. (Submitted by Lisa Erdle)

At the Rochman Lab, Erdle says they have found microfibres in seafood and drinking water as well.

"We should be looking at what some of the effects are in humans," she says. "There's enough to cause concern."

Removing microfibres and other microplastics from the environment is not an easy task. Unlike microbeads, microfibres can't be banned since they're a byproduct of washing clothes.

"You can sometimes see it in just house dust, different colours, and that probably comes from carpets and clothing," Erdle tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"They can end up in the air just through normal wear and tear. There's probably microfibres floating around us even in this studio."

Microplastics are tiny bits of plastic that are 5 mm long, hardly visible to the naked eye. (Submitted by Lisa Erdle )

Campaign underway in California 

Stiv Wilson, campaigns director for non-governmental organization The Story of Stuff Project, is campaigning for a bill in California that would require clothing that is more than 50 per cent polyester to have a label saying it sheds and that the garment should be handwashed.

He says it's not the best solution but eliminating more shedding with less friction and agitation is a better solution.

A spokesperson for the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna says "the health of our oceans is a priority."

"The government is focused on protecting them through our Oceans Protection Plan, by expanding marine conservation areas and joining other countries in banning plastic microbeads. We know more work needs to be done and that is why oceans will be a central focus of Canada's 2018 G7 Presidency."

Wilson argues the burden to fix this problem shouldn't rest on individuals but rather on clothing manufacturers.

"They really haven't made any steps in a direction that is going to mitigate the problem," Wilson tells Tremonti.

"What I think we need to be careful about is it's not a zero sum game. There's lot of environmental threat vectors from how we produce the goods we make, but I don't want to get into a conversation about comparing you know a gunshot wound to cancer and which is better and which is one we should focus on."

"The answer is we need to focus on all of them."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.


This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley, Samira Mohyeddin and Vancouver Network Producer Anne Penman.

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