Microfibers on the Menu: I’ll Have the Rockfish, Hold the Plastic

by Hannah Seligmann, Volunteer Coordinator

Tiny pieces of plastic are washing off our clothing and heading straight for the ocean with every load of laundry. Here are 10 things you need to know (spoiler alert, there’s a solution that you can easily be a part of!):

  1. Microfibers exist. Microfibers are small plastic particles within the category of microplastics.(1They are less than 5 millimeters long and can be as small as 3 microns (or one millionth of a meter). For reference, consider that human hair is 50-100 microns and a red blood cell is 6-10 microns.(2)
  2. Microfibers exist in our clothing (think synthetic material like polyester, nylon, spandex). Researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara found that, on average, synthetic fleece jackets release 1.7 grams of microfibers each wash. Similarly, the Plastic Soup Foundation found that more than 4,500 fibers can be released per gram of clothing per wash.(5)
  3. Microfibers absorb chemicals. Even though microfibers are tiny, they are big enough to absorb persistent organic pollutants (POP’s) like DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) and PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl). POP’s are toxic chemicals that are harmful to human health and the environment.(3)
  4. Microfibers travel. When something is washed in the washing machine, the water used in each cycle goes to a wastewater treatment plant where it is cleaned, treated, and then released directly into the local river or stream. These plants are not equipped to catch 100% of microfibers and due to the high cost of updating these systems; this is not a reliable immediate solution to the problem.
  5. Microfibers affect marine life. Aquatic organisms are consuming microfibers directly and indirectly.(1) Research reveals that two common results of marine life ingesting plastic are death by starvation and reproductive complications.
  6. Microfibers may impact human health. There is a lot to learn about microfiber impacts, but what we have learned is 67% of all species tested from fish markets in California had microfiber in them.(2) Generally, when fish eat plastic it ends up in the gut. Although we do not typically eat the gut, there is concern as to the potential for absorbed chemicals (remember those POP’s?) to transfer to the muscle tissues and parts we do eat. For shellfish, we eat the entire creature, so yes, we are eating plastic.
  7. People are talking about microfibers. Patagonia recently completed a study called “Microfiber Pollution and the Apparel Industry” to better understand the apparel industry’s contribution to microfiber pollution and how it can be managed.(4) Martha Stewart just highlighted the solution we’re about to tell you about.(6)
  8. They are everywhere. Microfibers have been found in freshwater, the Great Lakes, soil, the atmosphere, and the ocean. Global water samplings declare that microfibers are in found in all aquatic environments.(1, 7)
  9. A solution exist. The Cora Ball is the world’s first microfiber-catching laundry ball. This is a human-scale, consumer solution that you can easily be a part of! You simply toss the Cora Ball into the washing machine and do your wash as usual. After the wash, you’ll see clumps of fuzz collected in your Cora Ball. Pull these out (similar to hair in a brush) and toss into the trash. Bonus! Cora collects animal hair too! The Cora Ball design was inspired by nature, specifically coral, with the intention of catching tiny things while allowing water to flow. The material is made from 100% recycled plastic in the USA and catches up to 35% of the microfibers per load, per Cora Ball. Early test results indicate that if 10% of US households used a Cora Ball, we could keep the plastic equivalent of over 30 million water bottles out of our oceans, lakes and rivers every year.(2)
  10. Organizations are taking action. The Rozalia Project works for a clean, protected, and thriving ocean through education, cleanups, research, and technology. The Cora Ball was invented through marine debris expeditions on the East Coast aboard the American Promise, the Rozalia Project’s oceanographic research vessel. American Promise was designed by Ted Hood, made famous by Dodge Morgan’s solo round the world voyage, and then used as an offshore sail training vessel for the United States Naval Academy.  

Take action for microfiber pollution; check out the Cora Ball kickstarter campaign.

Did you know that rivers are the primary carrier of plastics to the ocean? One of AFF’s Trash Free Potomac Watershed Initiative programs works on cleaning up litter (and preventing it!). Be a part of our Potomac Cleanup for “last chance capture” of other types of plastic entering our waters.

 

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