Oceans are getting full of plastic pollution, plastic pollutants were recently found at the world’s remotest place almost 11 km below the sea surface at Mariana Trench. Especially microplastics are extremely dangerous for the ecosystems; numerous studies have shown that small organisms readily ingest microplastics, introducing toxic pollutants higher up the food chain. But all the different sources of contamination remain largely unidentified. In a truly alarming study published in 2011, ecologist Mark Browne, now a senior research associate at the University of New South Wales, Australia, came across a special subcategory of microplastics: fibers.
In fact, 85% of the human-made material found on the shorelines around the world were microfibers, and matched the types of petroleum-based materials, such as nylon and acrylic, used in clothing. Microfibers – tiny threads shed from fabric – have been found in abundance on shorelines where wastewater is released. This suggests that a large proportion of microplastic fibers contained in the marine environment may be derived from sewage as a consequence of washing our clothes.
Natural fibers, such as cotton or wool, biodegrade over time. But synthetic fibers are problematic because they are not biodegradable, and tend to bind with molecules of harmful chemical pollutants found in wastewater, or even possibly they end up in animals’ tissues, according to Sherri Mason’s research in Lake Michigan.
“When we launder our clothes, some of the little microfibers will break off and go down the drain to the wastewater treatment facility and end up in our bodies of water,” explained Mason, according to NBC’s report on the matter. Experiments sampling wastewater from domestic washing machines demonstrated that a single garment is capable to release more than 1.900 fibers per wash! The fibers are so minuscule that people typically don’t realize their favorite pullover fleece can shed thousands of them with every washing.
“We know that these are the most abundant forms of debris ” Browne commented to The Guardian’s report, adding that government and industry must be asked to explain what they are going to do about it. The issue is obviously depending on the apparel industry’s efforts to conclude or support relevant research, whereas, in the meanwhile, waterless washing machines are probably on the way.
And since stop selling fleece apparel is merely impossible at this point, two German co-owners of a retailer store, Alexander Nolte and Oliver Spies, came up with a handy solution they named “Guppy Friend”; a mesh laundry bag, that goes into the washing machine, capturing shedding fibers as clothes are tossed and spun and thus preventing the fibers from escaping. When the bag is removed from the washer, the fiber – visible against the white mesh – can be removed by hand and disposed of. Tests show that the Guppy Friend remains functional and intact after hundreds of washings.
The Guppy Friend is the first device designed specifically to prevent microfiber pollution. As for capturing the fibers at their next stop, wastewater treatment plants, there is yet no viable plan. Besides, according to Browne, even if those microplastics were removed from the liquid waste, they would end up in sludge, which in some places ends up being turned into fertilizers. In those cases, the plastics would still enter the ecosystem, and conceivably the food chain, ultimately proving what scientists have been emphasising from the very beginning; this is everybody’s problem.
The case of microfibers is one more example that demonstrates that the more we invent and create products with new materials, the more we produce new types of waste that we are incapable to manage or prevent. As long as eco-design and life cycle analysis are still the exception and not the rule, the more new materials we create, the more new forms of waste will be generated. Unfortunately, waste management comes always too late, after we realize the problems related with the new forms of waste.
The case of microfibers is also very emblematic for the technical barriers involved. The solutions to Marine Litter problems are much more complicated than the simple idea of mechanical removal of plastics or the use of biodegradable plastics.
Regarding the mechanical removal of plastics, obviously such a solution has nothing to do with microplastics. In addition, oceanographers and biologists question whether the design will work as described and survive the natural forces of the open ocean, how it will affect sea life, and whether this is actually the best way to tackle the problem of ocean plastic – or merely a distraction from the bigger problem of pollution prevention. Many have also expressed concern about the lack of an environmental impact statement prior to such a large push for funding.
As for the biodegradable plastics, according some top UN environmental scientists biodegradable plastic water bottles and shopping bags are a false solution to the ubiquitous problem of litter in the oceans, simply because they are extremely durable, leading to large plastic debris and “microplastics” to spread via currents to oceans.
“Invisible” forms of waste, like nanomaterials, microfibers and microplastics are becoming more and more dangerous and we still do not know how to capture them or how to recycle them. The only solution for this type of waste is prevention, but this requires a substantial shift to the relevant industrial sectors and their business models.