The Reality of Micro Plastics and Microfibers

While we are doing our part removing as much disposable plastic from our daily lives, it’s easy to forget about micro plastics. And it’s easy to see why, for their nearly invisible nature. But micro plastics are a big part of our daily life because the demand for plastic is greater than ever, despite some environmental regulation and eco-goodwill. Micro plastics, the synthetic result from plastic “breaking down” over time, might be minuscule, but it also presents one of the earth’s largest problems as the tiny plastics have made their way into our rainwater, our soil, our food, and our bodies.

What was the 2019 headline? ‘Every human eats the equivalent of a credit card worth of plastic in week’? Well, not exactly. Researchers calculated a wide range for how much micro plastic people consume. 5 grams, or “a credit card’s worth,” is on the highest end of that range, which could also be as low as 0.1 grams. Either way, it’s not good.

Outside of un-recycled plastic in our ground and waterways/oceans, another source of micro plastics is our textiles. When switching to a more sustainable lifestyle, you may find yourself avoiding things like plastic packaged groceries, single use plastic bottles, cups, and utensils, and plastic bags – but how about the plastic in the textile materials of everyday items, like towels and wash cloths? A lot of micro plastics – more commonly referred to as “microfibres” in fashion—which are thinner than a human hair and often invisible to the naked eye, are released into the air and our wastewater systems (simply by doing laundry), and from there into our rivers and oceans.

What are plastic textiles? Well, as listed on this chart; polyester, nylon, spandex, chiffon, fleece, and satin are made from plastic, which is a fossil fuel product. We also call them synthetics. Purchasing 100% natural fiber towels, sheets, and clothing is a great step in preventing the release of microfibers in our personal laundry. Textiles made from cotton; bamboo, linen, hemp, silk, and wool do not contain plastic.  So switching away from synthetic materials for towels, sheets, workout clothes, and other garments you wash regularly is especially important.

Microfiber cloths are made from micro plastics. Sorry. I know that they clean and pick up dust like no other, but the reality is that microfiber fabric is made out of teeny, tiny micro plastic, which is why they are so soft. Sometimes they are made of recycled plastics, but many times they’re made from totally virgin materials. Microfiber cloths may rate high for reusability but they flunk for all other reasons. There are great sustainable alternatives such as a plane, old, recycled t-shirt rag, slightly damp natural sponge, or Swedish Dishcloths.

Swiffers are trouble as well. Why? Because the disposable pads are made from polyester (plastic) and the fragrance they use is 100% synthetic, introducing phthalates, asthmagens, and other concerning chemicals to your home. VOCs are not the only disruptive by-product of Swiffer products – the pads are ultimately a single-use product bound for the trash. Once that polyester material is in a landfill, it breaks down eventually to a pile of micro plastics ready to contaminate the soil, groundwater, and waterways.

And workout clothes and yoga pants? Primarily synthetics. But what about my ‘Lulus’?! What about my favorite cozy fleece? I know, I know! – I hear you. So this is where we have to get creative. Caring for these textiles can be part of the solution. Yes, it’s true that microfibers can be released into the environment by merely wearing the garment. But long washing cycles, washing with hot water and high heat drying also create a break down in the microfiber causing it to migrate. Follow this check list to mitigate microfiber migration. The happy upside is that these suggestions are also energy savers for the planet that represent savings to your wallet as well.

Wash with cold water

Did you know that temperature doesn’t have a thing to do with getting anything clean? Not even your skin. So don’t waste the energy. Switch to the cold setting on your washing machine and keep it there. You’re welcome.

Use a shorter cycle

Not only do you not need to wash your clothes in hot or even warm water, but you don’t need to wash for an hour either! The longer the wash the greater fiber breakage in any fabric, natural or synthetic. I’ve gotten in the habit of the ‘express’ option on my washer. 40 min. Haven’t noticed my clothes being any less clean.

Don’t use delicate

This one is counter intuitive, but the delicate cycle actually uses more water and more water equals more microfibers. Who knew? So stick with the regular cycle.

Skip the dryer

Synthetics dry fast, so it makes sense to hang them to dry. The same reason you hang your expensive bra out to air dry rather than subjecting it to the Saharan wind storm of your dryer. The dryer heat, as with water, breaks down the fibers. So get in the habit of air drying your synthetics. They will last longer.

Separate the rough stuff

Keep the soft synthetics away from the rough crowd. The tough, hard fabrics – think denim – create the friction that cause microfiber breakage. Softer fabrics should stay in their own pool.

Use a filter

There is an easy to use filter bag called Guppyfriend. It’s a net washing bag that captures most microplastic fibers breakage in the wash. You just toss in your synthetics, zip it up, and after a few uses, pick out the microfiber lint that’s collected in the corners and toss it. By separating your synthetics, you not only protect them from extra friction, but the bag contains any migrating microfibers. The Cora Ball and others catch 26% of microfibers compared to the 75%-86% capture of the Guppyfriend bag. No harm in using both!

Wash less

This one’s a no-brainer. Do you absolutely need to wash certain items after every wear? Does it past the sniff test? Be honest. Over-washing clothes shortens their life. 

To wrap up…

Since synthetics are part of our lives for awhile, treat them as the delicate fabric capable of harm that they are. It won’t be long before a bamboo or hemp material replaces the spandex in your yoga pants. In the meantime, it’s great to support the Patagonias and Pacts of the world. Companies doing their best to be responsible to the textiles that they put out there.

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About the Author

Here at Jenny Green Jeans, by sharing success stories and easy-to- implement tips, I hope to inspire and empower you to continue to make sustainable choices in your life and watch how far the impact goes. Please contact me with any questions or suggestions you may have. Also visit the Green Design Goods store for my favorite environmentally sustainable products.

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  1.' Linda says:

    This is a great and important post! Thank you Jen, for not only alerting us to the problem, but offering truly helpful and achievable solutions! You continue to be the Planet Whisperer.🙏

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