Microfibres: the plastic in our clothes

Could you be eating your own clothes? Our garments are shedding tiny bits of plastic that can escape into the ocean and potentially enter the food chain.
Photo of Phil Byrne with dog
By Phil Byrne    |      Published:  14 Sep 2018    |      4 minute read

It might surprise you, but you're probably wearing plastic clothes.

Even more shocking, your clothes may be leading to invisible plastics infiltrating our oceans and even our own bodies. A new report Reducing Household Contributions to Marine Plastic Pollution by research group Eunomia, commissioned by Friends of the Earth, reveals how your clothes are part of this worrying problem. 

Many of our clothes contain plastics like polyester, nylon, acrylic and polyamide. In fact, most new fabrics are made of plastic – up to 64% of them.

The thing is, every time we wash these materials they shed millions of plastic microfibres. Threads so small they can drain out of our washing machines and pass straight through wastewater treatment plants into the sea.

It gets worse. Once in our oceans, they can absorb nasty chemicals. Disturbingly, sea creatures are eating these toxic fibres, potentially passing them up the food chain. Some studies have found them in seafood like mussels.

If you don't like the idea of eating your own clothes, we need to find alternatives to using plastic. 

Just to be clear, we haven't got all the answers yet and we're not asking retailers to press a magic button. But we are asking them to urgently look into ways of removing the most-polluting items from our shelves. Polluting our oceans and harming our wildlife should never be in fashion.

Read on for more unpalatable truths – or skip straight to our tips for limiting the impact of your wardrobe on the environment.

One washing load of clothes could be shedding up to 17 million tiny plastic fibres.

What is a microfibre?

Microfibres are a type of microplastic – particles of plastic below 5mm in size. Other examples of microplastics include:

  • bits from larger plastic items like bottles and bags that break down in the sea
  • pieces that wear away from tyres while driving
  • microbeads in cosmetics
  • and paints on buildings and marking roads.

Thinner than a human hair

A microfibre is a plastic-based thread that is thinner than a human hair. Certain products shed microfibres during their lifetime. For example, they wash out of our synthetic clothes.

Most of these tiny fibres derive from polyester. Its lightness and warmth and the fact that it’s quick-drying seemingly make it perfect for clothing. Your fleece jacket is made from this stuff.

Other common microfibres include nylon and acrylic. They’re hiding in our carpets, curtains and other household textiles, as well as our clothes.

2 Fleece microfibres - one red, one blue - under the microscope
Polyester fleece microfibres under the microscope
Credit: istock

Environmentally-friendly plastic clothing?

Some brands market polyester apparel as environmentally friendly because they use recycled plastic bottles to make it. That may sound like a good way to reduce plastic pollution, but we now know that these garments are shedding lots of plastic debris.

Plastic particles in water, land, air and food

Plastic isn’t harmlessly disappearing in the environment. It’s recirculating as small particles and fibres. Microplastic pollution is cropping up all over the world including in extremities like the Arctic and Antarctic.

Microfibres have been found in air, rivers, soil, drinking water, beer and table salt.

Washing machines and wastewater treatment plants aren't designed to trap the minute plastic fibres that our clothes shed during washing. Many of these fibres sneak into our waterways and ultimately the oceans. And lots are caught up in sludge at the treatment plants – which is then sprayed over our soils as fertiliser.

What happens when microfibres escape into the oceans?

Sea organisms like plankton can easily mistake these tiny plastics for food. In turn, many smaller animals and fish depend on plankton as their main food source – the great blue whale is also a plankton eater. Anything that dines on the plankton will get a dose of plastic pollution – potentially passing microfibres up the food chain.

These plastic fibres have even been found in mussels and fish destined for the dinner table. And there are other ways they might end up in your body too. Microfibres have been found in air, rivers, soil, drinking water, beer and table salt.

Close-up of a woman's hand and mouth as she eats a dressed mussel from its shell
Microfibres have been found in seafood like mussels
Credit: istock

These fibres are tiny, so what's the problem?

They might be minuscule but these plastic pieces can absorb high concentrations of poisonous substances – some of which escaped into our oceans years ago. These include chemicals we once used in products like pesticides but are now banned, like DDT.

Even before the fibres reach the ocean there's a good chance they've soaked up toxins from detergents and fire-proofing chemicals. Some of these pose a threat to our liver, kidneys and nervous system. Others are toxic to aquatic life.

They're definitely not substances you'd want lurking in the food chain.

Recycling plastics isn't the answer

For many materials, recycling is a useful way of preventing pollution – but not for plastic. It just delays the inevitable escape of pollutants into the environment. And many plastics can only be recycled a few times before they become too low-grade anyway.

That's why we need to phase out all but the most essential plastics. We certainly don't need them in our clothes and textiles.

Think of it this way:

A plastic bottle is thrown away

  • It fragments into microplastics, which last for at least hundreds of years, spreading pollutants.

Or it's sent for recycling

  • There, it's probably made into polyester because it's easier and cheaper than turning it into a new bottle.
  • And maybe then put in a fleece.
  • At once it starts shedding plastic microfibres. 
  • They too find their way into the environment, and last for at least hundreds of years, spreading pollutants.

Tips for reducing microplastics from your clothes

Without doubt, the best cure for plastic pollution is to phase out all non-essential plastics.

We need to ramp up the pressure to find ways to reduce plastics pouring into our oceans.

In the meantime, can we stop our clothes shedding millions of tiny plastic bits?

Research is still at an early stage but these suggestions are definitely worth trying:

1. Wash at low temperatures

A lower-temperature wash is less aggressive and therefore less likely to shake out plastic fibres.

2. Put your washing in a special bag

Use a Guppy Bag or Coraball in your washing machine. They claim to help collect the microfibres that shed from your clothes during washing.

3. Fill the washing machine

A full washing machine reduces friction between items – in other words, they don't rub against each other as much.

4. Reduce spin speeds

Faster spins dry clothes quicker but they also shake them up more, risking more plastics shedding.

5. Air dry rather than tumble dry

Tumble drying is more aggressive than air drying – and could cause your clothes to shed more plastic.

6. Use a front-loading washing machine

Tests show that top-loading washing machines probably release more plastic fibres.

7. Buy fewer fleeces

Polyester fleece could well be one of the biggest emitters of microfibres. Consider buying a woollen fleece instead.

8. Keep your clothes for longer

Your clothes are likely to shed more plastic in the first few washes – so frequently changing your wardrobe will probably increase the amount of plastic you're sending into the environment. Buy higher quality clothes that last.