By Surfrider Pacific Rim Chapter Manager Lilly Woodbury
You turned the dial to cold, and carefully tuned the settings to low water and slow spin. You bought the most eco-friendly soap – or, better yet, you made your own ocean friendly concoction following recipes that promised to undo the west coast dirt, salt and sweat warping your clothes. With the drying rack ready for the cleansed items, you think “another day, another environmental deed.” Many of us went along like this, unassuming of the dark and dirty secret, one that has mainly been invisible until recently, when we discovered one of the most prolific forms of ocean pollution is being caused from quite an unassuming suspect: washing synthetic fabrics.
Microfibres have certainly added a new dimension to the concept of dirty laundry, so when did this phenomenon begin? We did not always cover ourselves in petroleum, we looked to the natural world to conceal our bare bodies. Until the 1930’s, humans used fibres from animals and plants for clothing, with cotton and linen from the flora world, along with wool and silk from fauna. Of course, these types of fibres can break down in the natural environment, they biodegrade and are assimilated back into earth’s systems. In 1931 everything changed when Wallace Carothers, a chemist working for Dupont, discovered nylon, a synthetic fibre made from petrochemicals. From this time, more research was undertaken on synthetics, and by the 1950’s both acrylic and polyester had been invented, and usage of this type of fibre soared as it could be created quicker, was cheaper, easier to wash, stain resistant, and antimicrobial. However, just like all of the other applications fossil fuels are used for, the consequences of using this material are far reaching, and we are still working to understand the full picture of this detrimental pollutant.
Though a lot of the world still isn’t aware we are wearing plastics, studies on the pollution caused by synthetic fibres is not new. Scientists at the Scottish Association for Marine Science and the University of the Highlands and Islands have been observing microfibre pollution since 1976, observing the presence of fibres in benthic invertebrates like worms, crabs, lobsters, and sponges. Since the study began, the organisms tested at the study site have been consistently ingesting fibres. Now, scientists estimate that 35% of all microplastics in the ocean are a result of washing synthetic textiles. Why is this an issue? Like all plastics, microfibres do not biodegrade, and once they are in an aquatic environment, their absorptive surface soaks up all types of chemicals, from PCB’s BPA, and persistent organic pollutants. Their minute size also makes them available to a broader spectrum of marine life, and when building blocks of the food chain, like zooplankton, are consuming plastics, the impacts ripple upwards throughout the web of life. Unlike a large barrel or intact buoy, microfibres are also incredibly hard to remove from the environment. As it stands, there is no effective way to remove microfibres from the ocean, and their omnipresence only continues to worsen: a study done by Orb and the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, tested tap water samples from around the world and found that 83 per cent of the samples contained plastic microfibres. Studies around the world have also found microfibres as well as in bottled water, honey, salt and beer. For us here on the coast, they have also been found in shellfish and salmon, according to the Vancouver Aquarium.
The concern for microplastics in the water began with microbeads, an unnecessary synthetic product added to toiletries, which became banned in Canada in January, 2018. We must continue now with microfibres, which pose an even larger threat. This comes down to actions at various levels, the first starting in our home, with purchasing clothing and other cloth items made from natural fibres. Checking the tags of items we purchase, both new and used, to see if it’s made from wool, bamboo, hemp, or another natural fibre. As we find ourselves in another New Year, we can also pledge to not purchase any fast fashion items in 2019! Of course, many of us do not have the resources to only purchase natural fabrics, so we can also prevent microfibres by using microfibre filters and/or catchments. One great option is the Lint LUV-R, a washing machine extension that catches microfibres before they leave the waste water pipe. The Guppfriend is another great option, a wash bag that prevents microfibres from leaching into the water. Then, all of the microfibres can be captured by the lint trap. Additionally, the Cora Ball is another tool to mitigate this pollution, a ball that captures microfibres, but only around 35% of what is emitted.
After taking a look at what we can do in our own lives, we also need to add pressure and ownenss to the textile industry, who continue to profit on cheap threads at the expense of the environment, and most often, at the expense of underpaid labourers. Greenpeace is among many organizations campaigning to “detox” the fashion industry, whom we can support and get involved with. Businesses can also help lead the way on this, by using natural fibre based linens, selling natural fibre clothing, and using microfibre catchments in their laundry systems. Through the Ocean Friendly Business Campaign, many businesses are mitigating microfibre pollution by installing the Lint LUV-R microfibre catchment system, including Live to Surf, Ocean Outfitters, Ocean Village, Hello Nature Adventure Tours and Middle Beach Lodge. Similar to the microbeads case, we also need to put pressure on our government to regulate textile industries, create incentives for mitigating microfibre pollution, and supporting technological advances that will prevent this type of pollution. In regards to the latter idea, ideally, appliance companies will start building the solution into their products, with washing machines that filter out microfibres. All of these measures have also become a whole lot more possible, as our MP Gord John’s Motion-151 was unanimously voted for in the House of Commons last month. This Motion is calling for a national strategy on plastic pollution, which is now going to be put into action! Like other environmental issues, concrete change means that individuals, schools, businesses, industry and government all need to be involved in finding and implementing permanent and sustainable solutions!
Are you interested in addressing plastic pollution? If so, we would love for you to join our Rise Above Plastics Team! Email voluntercoordinator@