Killer Fashion: Fashion kills Marine Life !

Did you know that every time you throw your clothes into the wash, you may be contributing to the death of marine life? There are microfibres or extra-fine fibres of synthetic textiles (including nylon, acrylic or polyester) found on many garments.

These microfibres shed from clothes when put into to washing machines. From here, they are disposed as waste water into water bodies for marine life to fatally feed on.

How do Microfibres Shed From Your Garments?

Studies have shown that certain synthetic textile blends shed microfibres during the garment washing processes. Here are the results from a study conducted by Patagonia Plastics Project, which included researchers from the University of California at Santa Barbara, where two main variables were measured; the type of washing machine used and the age of the clothing.

Results of the research

  1. After washing several jackets in the different types of washing machines, it was found that between 160mg and 2700mg of microfibres were shed by each jacket washed.
  2. There was 5.3 times more microfibre shedding from top load machines as compared to front load machines, likely the result of an agitator found in top load machines.
  3. There is 1.8 times more shedding from aged jackets as compared to newer ones. More shedding was likely due to weakening of fibres as a result of wear.

Other variables that may have affected the results of the study include the wash cycle length, water temperature and the type of detergent used.

Additionally, the study suggests that in a city comprising of 100,000 people, 170-441 Kilos of microfibre from synthetic clothing are produced through washing every day.

Microfibres and Marine Life

Owing to laundry processes, garment microfibres make their way to wastewater treatment plants. Despite the efforts to treat the wastewater, 90 – 110 kg of the microfibres are released into local water bodies, eventually making their way to rivers, lakes, seas and oceans.

According to a study conducted by UK researchers, micro plastics found in deep sea creatures included microfibres from polyester, nylon and acrylic.

Since aquatic animals indiscriminately interact with all sediments (the organic materials and micro plastics), by feeding on them and living around them, the micro plastics pose a threat to aquatic life.

Micro plastics and microfibres are roughly the size of organic material that marine creatures feed on; they are therefore often mistaken for food and ingested. This causes incredible amounts of harm to their digestive systems and they often die before they reach reproductive age. Furthermore, micro plastics also attract other toxins in seawater which are then ingested by small aquatic animals and are consequently passed up the food chain to larger animals like squat lobsters, hermit crabs, sea cucumbers and whales.

In a study conducted by researchers from Oxford University and Bristol University, micro plastics were found in marine animals at depths of between 300m and 1800m; evidence which pointed out that even animals at this depth ingest micro plastics.

Researchers have found that microfibres are the most prominent type of micro plastic found among aquatic systems where there are dense human populations. Once the microfibres make their way to aquatic habitats the following effects have been found to occur:

  1. Consumption of the microfibres by small aquatic animals results in gastro-intestinal blockages which can lead to starvation.
  2. Toxic substances in the microfibre are absorbed by aquatic animals which lead to organ stress including reproductive disturbances.
  3. According to a study by the University of Exeter, microfibres were found to alter the behaviour of crabs. The crabs ate less and therefore had stunted growth over time.

When larger aquatic animals feed on smaller poisoned ones, the microfibres bio-accumulate and therefore toxins concentrate in larger animals at the top of the food chain. These poisons sometimes make their way to the humans as well.

The Scale Of The Problem

According to a research paper published in 2011 by a senior research associate at the University of New South Wales, Australia, 85% of human debris on shorelines around the world comprised of microfibres. A principal researcher at the Global Microplastics Initiative, found that microfibres are making their way to fresh water bodies as well as oceans and seas.

What can be done?

The textile and garment industry faces the steep challenge of remedying the current problems caused by microfibre pollution. Unlike microbeads (tiny bits of plastics found in beauty products), which have economically viable alternatives that can be used in their place, synthetic fibres like polyester do not currently have viable alternatives. This makes it quite difficult to encourage producers and consumers to seek different alternatives for their fibre.

Consequently, mitigation of microfibre pollution seems to be the most feasible solution to control ‘killer fashion’. According to the Plastic Soup Foundation, producing fabrics coated with anti-shed treatment can reduce microfibre pollution and produce better quality clothing. Researchers are also confident that plastic collectors similar to those used in ocean clean-ups can capture micro plastics before they can cause damage to aquatic life. Directing efforts towards removing microfibres in densely populated coastal economies before they can cause harm can be of great help.


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