Plastic pollution is a clear and severe problem in our world’s oceans. The billions of pieces of plastics floating around are gradually becoming documented by scientists, videographers, and photographers around the world. And their effects on marine life are generally well-known: entanglement and ingestion leading to an untimely death.
But what about the plastics that don’t appear in the pictures we’re seeing?
Microplastics range in size from a few millimeters down to microscopic, and come from a variety of different sources (ex: the breakdown of larger plastics, personal care produces, and pre-production pellets). But by far the most abundant type of microplastic in our oceans is microfibers (approximately 85%).
But where are these micro-fibers coming from? Look no further than your own household. Synthetic clothings shed thousands of microfibers when we wash them, and these fibers escape the filters of our washing machines with ease. Many will be captured at wastewater facilities after rinsing down the drain, but still billions will escape to the natural world.
Their numbers in rivers, lakes, and oceans reach the trillions, and quadrillions, and the worst part is that being plastic – they don’t break down!
So why should we care? How do little fibers affect us? Well, these fibers are being found as ‘fallout’ in our air, they leach into our drinking water, and they have even been found in human lung biopsies. We should care because they have become ubiquitous.
Initially, scientists believed this to be solely a marine problem, since microfibers were first discovered in our oceans. They believed the fibers floated, and so testing was done near the surface of the water column. As we sound discovered, this notion was very wrong. Microplastics are being found dispersed throughout the water column, as deep as the Marianas Trench and entrapped in Arctic sea ice.
Even scarier is that, like mercury, microplastics are being consumed by small marine organisms and passed up the food web. And who sits atop the food web? We do.
Even though this is a relatively new field of study, growing research is supporting the idea that microfibers are harmful to the health and physiology of marine species. Yet the ecological consequences are unclear.
In some smaller species like shrimp, microplastics can block the digestive system and limit the amount of ‘real’ food these animals are consuming. Another concern is that microplastics attract chemicals from the water, providing a route for toxic chemicals to move into marine organisms.
The potential for us as humans to ingest microplastics in the seafood we are eating is certain, but we don’t yet understand what this means for our own health.
Marine and environmental scientists are continually exploring this problem we are faced with today, from how microplastics enter our natural world, to how they move and affect different species once there. But we need textile scientists to join the fight to finding solutions to this problem at its source.
One proposed solution is the implementation of devices in washing machines to catch the microfibers at their source. But this could prove unpopular and expensive.
A large part of the solution should ultimately lie at the real source – the manufacturing of synthetic fabrics. Fiber and textile scientists have the knowledge and ability to help here. They are the ones who can help find ways to at least limit the shedding properties of synthetic fabrics.
It only makes sense that environmental scientists and textile scientists join forces and put their heads together in workshops and research to better understand how we can solve this global problem.
Source: Judith S. Weis, “Cooperative Work is Needed Between Textile Scientists and Environmental Scientists to Tackle the Problems of Pollution by Microfibers”
Journal: Journal of Textile and Apparel, Technology and Management