You need to look very closely along shorelines to see them. Plastic fibers less than 5mm long, barely visible to the naked eye. Millions of tonnes of these microplastics are contaminating marine life and the environment, eventually ending up in the air we breathe and the food we eat.
The main source of primary microplastics is synthetic clothing, followed not so closely by city dust and the erosion of vehicle tires. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, synthetic clothes now account for 60 percent of the global apparel industry’s annual fiber consumption and 35 percent of microplastics in the ocean. Cutting, dyeing, and finishing processes can all contribute to the release of microplastics, but a growing body of research links the washing of clothes in the home to the shedding process. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a nonprofit that lobbies for a circular economy, estimates that clothing care contributes half a million tonnes of primary microplastics a year.
Whether it is the responsibility of clothing brands or consumers to combat this problem is open to debate. But a likely solution, say, sustainability experts, requires the support of both. Synthetic fibers will always shed microplastics, but small changes in consumers’ washing habits — such as using microfibre filters — can minimize the amount that enters waterways. Experts say brands have a pivotal role to play in educating consumers on how best to use their washing machines, including opting for reduced spin cycles and microfibre filters. A longer-term commitment might include phasing out the production of synthetic clothing and promoting designs that minimize shedding.
Helping to educate consumers
“Brands should be educating customers on the lowest impact ways to care for their products,” says Charlotte Turner, head of sustainable fashion and textiles at fashion advisory Eco-Age. In recent years, global brands including Patagonia, Sweaty Betty, and Finisterre have been doing this by selling consumer-facing microplastic solutions such as the Guppyfriend washing bag.
Alexander Nolte and Oliver Spies, from Germany, designed the Guppyfriend to capture microfibres released during the domestic washing cycle. Consumers place their synthetic garments inside the mesh bag and zip it up before putting it inside the washing machine. The tight mesh allows in water and detergent to clean the garments while stopping microfibres from getting out. Microfibres gather at the top of the bag, to be disposed of in a sealed container so they don’t reenter the environment. The bag lasts at least 50 washes, after which it has to be separated from the zip and binding and recycled.
“We are looking for communication partners, not distribution partners,” says Nolte. “Our partners either help us reach more people or they invest in research. It is a dialogue starter.” Guppyfriend declined to share sales figures for the bag, which is now sold globally.