I recently attended a conference on the environmental impact of microplastics. The event was organised by the NFWI and came a day after they published their report, In A Spin: how our laundry is contributing to plastic pollution. The report was presented at a roundtable but I’ll get to that later on.
So, microplastics… a microplastic is any piece of plastic that is 5mm or smaller. We’re all familiar with the intact bottles and lighters etc that are floating around in the sea, and harming wildlife, but not many people have heard of microplastics let alone the harm they can cause.
Being less than 5mm in size means it’s almost impossible for them to be spotted and picked out, however there are some mechanisms in place to try and catch as many as possible. Enter the oh so glamourous world of sewage treatment… EVERYTHING we flush goes through at least one (for very remote places) level of filtration and treatment. Most of us live in towns or cities and we can typically expect our flushes to go through about 3 stages of treatment. Sometimes, and increasingly often, fatbergs are being discovered. The sewage system will develop a blockage and when a team goes down to investigate they find huge solid masses of… mostly wipes actually. Tampons, nappies and cooking fat typically make up around 10-20% of the bergs and the rest are wipes!
The sewage not affected by fatbergs goes through the treatment works and at the end of the process there is a lot of very fertile sludge left over, which is then passed on to farmers to spread around their crops. At the moment there are microplastics that are too small to be picked up by the filtration systems and are making their way into the vegetables we eat.
As far as food goes, that’s just the tip of the iceberg – well done me for not making a lettuce based pun there! Plastic (of all sizes) is turning up in the stomachs of the animals we go on to eat… from fish to birds and mammals, they’re all ingesting plastic from various sources. That plastic can have a hormone disrupting effect on the animals.
It’s not just our food that is being affected, in fact our drinks often contain microplastics too. I can’t go into too much detail here as the study hasn’t been officially published yet but so far researchers have found plastic particles in bottled drinks – they even found types of plastic inside the drinks which weren’t even used in the manufacture of the bottles the drinks came in. I’ll revisit this in more detail once the study is published.
So, before you swear to become vegan and only ever drink filtered water there is one more place where microplastics are entering our bodies – in the very air we breathe! We really cannot avoid it. I should point out that it is believed to only be harmful to us in extremely high concentrations, which experts think is highly unlikely to ever be reached by most people.
The NFWI report focuses on the microplastic fibres that are shed from our clothes in the washing machine. These days it’s rare for anyone to own any item of clothing without some form of plastic in it. We might have the odd 100% cotton t-shirt but it’s likely that the rest of the wardrobe is made up of synthetic fibres.
The round table that the NFWI presented their report at was attended by representatives from a variety of industries to try and tackle the issue from every angle – textile designers are now trying to create a synthetic fabric that sheds fewer fibres during each wash (ideally they’ll be able to get the number down to zero). Washing machine manufacturers will be looking at improving their filters etc to try and catch more plastic fibres, preventing them from entering the waterways. The government are going to think up appropriate legislation and the NFWI are going to raise awareness of the issue so that individuals can play their part too. There were others present, but you get the idea… it’s a multi-pronged attack on the microplastics coming from our clothes.
So while the experts work away at the problem what can we, as individuals, do to reduce the amount if plastic we add to the oceans in the meantime? Well there are a few things we can do right away:
- Wash at lower temperatures – this will help fewer fibres from being shed.
- Switch to a liquid detergent rather than powder – powder agitates the fabrics a lot more than liquid detergent and so more fibres are released. There is a zero waste argument for Soap Nuts here, but I haven’t given them a proper run yet so stay tuned for an in-depth review.
- Only wash clothes when dirty – climbing into some casual clothes for a couple of hours after work means they’re probably still good to be worn again without having to go in the wash.
- Only run the washing machine when you have a full load and line dry instead of using a tumble drier if possible.
- Look into an in-wash filter like a Cora Ball. The Cora Ball currently only removes about half the fibres that are released but that appears to be the best available at the moment. At the conference someone from the textile industry announced that the Guppy Friend bags don’t work. Personally, I haven’t tried either (yet).
Hopefully I’ve given you some food for thought there. I know it’s tempting to start buying only natural fibres after finding out about all these microplastics coming from our clothes, however there is also an environmental impact there too. It’s a problem that we’re not going to be able to solve overnight, so in the meantime it’s best to alter our laundry habits as per the bullet points above.
Finally, I’m thrilled to announce there will be some exciting changes coming up – I’ll be moving the blog over to a new domain and I’ll also be adding an online shop where you’ll be able to purchase some handmade zero waste essentials.