Washing your clothes made from synthetic fabrics like acrylic, nylon, and polyester causes them to shed hundreds of thousands of microplastic fibers. Now, new research shows that just wearing synthetic clothes could release more microfibers than washing them.
The new study, published this week in Environmental Science and Technology, found that simply wearing polyester clothes and going through normal life activities can release the same amount of fiber pollution within a matter of hours.
“More evidence has been accumulating on the presence of synthetic microfibers not only in aquatic environments, but also in atmospheric ones,” Francesca De Falco, the study’s lead author and researcher at Italy’s Institute of Polymers, Composites and Biomaterials, said in a statement. “That is why we decided to design this set of experiments to study microfiber release by garments to both media.”
To conduct the study, the researchers examined four polyester and polyester-blend garments. They washed each item of clothing in a medium-warm 40 degree Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) cycle and measured the amount of fibers released. On the whole, between 700 and 4,000 microfibers were shed per gram of fabric during a single wash cycle.
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The scientists also had volunteers take turns wearing duplicates of each of the four items of clothing and act out a series of movements mimicking real life activities. They found wearing the clothes released up to 400 fibers per gram of fabric in just 20 minutes. That means simply wearing polyester clothes and going through normal life activities for 3 hours and 20 minutes can release 4,000 fibers, creating as much pollution as running those clothes through the laundry. Scaled up, while the average person releases almost 300 million polyester microfibers every year by doing laundry, they release three times that many fibers by wearing their clothes.
The bits of polyester, acrylic, and nylon jarred loose by washing clothes are so tiny that they can pass through sewage treatment plants and leech into waterways and oceans, where they release toxins and pose dangers to marine life. But the microfibers released from wearing them drift off into the air, where they can be toxic when we breathe them in. Recent studies show that airborne microfibers end up in oceans, too, showing marine life isn’t safe from our daily fashion choices either.
Consumer choices alone won’t solve this problem, because more than half of clothes sold worldwide today contain polyester.
One way to limit microfiber pollution is to design clothes with the goal of emitting fewer microfibers in mind. The study, for instance, shows that polyester-cotton blend garments actually produce more pollution than 100 percent polyester ones. It also shows that clothes that are woven more tightly and use tightly-wound yarn can release fewer fibers into both air and water.
We could also stop producing so much polyester, acrylic, and nylon clothing. After all, all three are made of fossil fuels, which we should be keeping in the ground in order to avert catastrophic climate change. It’s not that other fabrics are perfect—cotton production, for instance, uses more water than polyester production. But overall, the world is producing way more clothing, with production doubling between 2000 and 2014 alone. I think we could stand to tone it down in general for the sake of all life on the planet.