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Microfibers and the Environment: The Hidden Cost of Your Clothes

June 12, 2024

Have you ever heard of microfiber pollution? It's a growing concern affecting our planet in ways we might not be aware of. Microfibers are tiny pieces of plastic that are smaller than 5mm in size. These fibers come from various sources, including synthetic clothing like polyester, nylon, and acrylic. As these materials are washed, they release tiny fibers into our waterways that can cause harm to the environment and its inhabitants.

Photo by Bianca Jordan on Unsplash
Photos by averie woodard on Unsplash

What is Microfiber Pollution?

Microfiber pollution is an environmental problem that has been gaining attention recently. Microfibers are tiny plastic fibers released into the environment when synthetic clothing items such as polyester and nylon are washed. These tiny particles can be found in water sources, soil, and even the air we breathe, posing a severe threat to our planet's health.

The primary source of microfiber pollution is the production and washing of synthetic fabrics such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic. These fabrics are often used to produce denim jeans and other clothing items. When these items are washed, the tiny fibers break off and enter the water supply, where they can be ingested by wildlife or end up on shorelines. These microfibers have been found to contain potentially harmful chemicals which can have adverse effects on marine life.

How Jeans Contribute to Microfiber Pollution

Jeans are a staple in most wardrobes, but did you know they significantly contribute to microfiber pollution? Jeans are typically made from cotton, but they also contain synthetic fibers like spandex and polyester that are used to add stretch and durability. When these items are washed, the tiny fibers break off and enter the water supply, where they can be ingested by wildlife or end up on shorelines.

In fact, a recent study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters found that denim is one of the top contributors to microfiber pollution in the fashion industry. The study found that a single pair of jeans can release up to 56,000 microfibers in just one wash cycle. Considering how often we wash our jeans, a staggering amount of plastic pollution is being released into our waterways.

The same study found that the wastewater sediments contained a high concentration of microfibers, with denim microfibers being the most prevalent type. Researchers sampled sediments from the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, the American Great Lakes, and shallow suburban lakes in southern Ontario to measure the microfiber concentration. Up to 23% of all particles sampled contained denim microfibers. When analyzing wastewater from a treatment plant in Ontario, 13% of the microfibers found had indigo dye, a characteristic of denim.

Understanding Denim Manufacturing's Environmental Footprint

To truly understand the impact of denim production on the environment, looking at the entire process from start to finish is essential. A lifecycle assessment helps us understand the jeans' implications from material sourcing, manufacturing, washing, and post-consumer waste. The production of denim starts with the growth of cotton, a highly water-intensive crop often grown in regions where water is scarce. Growing enough cotton to produce a single pair of jeans can take over 2,000 gallons of water.

Once the cotton is harvested, it is processed and spun into yarn, then woven into denim fabric. This process can involve many chemicals, including dyes, which contain toxic substances like heavy metals and chlorine. When these chemicals are released into the water supply, they can significantly impact the environment.

After the denim is woven, it is often treated with sandpaper or other abrasive materials to create a distressed or worn look. This process can generate a lot of friction, which can cause the fibers in the fabric to break down into microfibers that are then released into the air and water.

Finally, the finished denim fabric is cut and sewn into jeans, then sold to consumers. However, even after the jeans have been purchased, they can continue contributing to microfiber pollution. Every time a pair of jeans is washed, it can release thousands of microfibers into the water supply.

Microfibers and Our Oceans

Research on the impact of microfibers on ocean dwellers and other marine life is still emerging. But one thing is for sure, microfibers are in our waterways, and these tiny plastic fibers can be ingested by aquatic life, causing disruption to marine ecosystems. In addition, microfibers are extremely difficult to clean up and may never fully biodegrade, resulting in a permanent source of plastic pollution.

We also know that microfibers can travel a long way through our waterways. Studies like one published in Nature Communications have found a widespread distribution of microplastics across the Arctic Ocean, even in the most remote areas. Microfibers were found as deep as 1015 meters below the surface.

Though we don't know the long-term impact on wildlife and habits, the abundance of pollution is a cause for concern. Wired quoted Nicholas Mallos, senior director of the Ocean Conservancy's Trash Free Seas Program, "While we certainly need more research to fully understand the effects, we also have ample evidence right now to act." We couldn't agree more - knowing that these fibers are potentially harmful and mitigation solutions are available, we should act.

Taking Action Against Microfiber Pollution

Fortunately, there are several steps that you can take to help reduce the amount of microfiber pollution from denim production. Here are a few things you can do:

  1. Choose quality over quantity: Invest in higher-quality jeans made with better materials and processes. This will help ensure your jeans last longer and release fewer microfibers when washed.
  2. Choose natural fibers: When shopping for denim, choose jeans made from natural fibers like organic cotton, hemp, or linen. Unlike synthetic fibers, these fibers are biodegradable and will break down over time.
  3. Buy from sustainable brands: Look for clothing companies committed to sustainable practices, such as using organic cotton or taking steps to reduce water waste. By supporting these brands, you can help limit the environmental impact of denim production. Our favorite sustainable jeans brands are Boyish, Nudie Jeans, and Jeanerica.
  4. Wash your jeans less often: The more you wash them, the more microfibers they release. Try to wear your jeans a few times before washing them, and when you do wash them, use a washing machine filter to catch the microfibers.

Conclusion

In conclusion, microfiber pollution is an environmental problem becoming more significant in our daily lives. The production and washing of synthetic fabrics, including denim, release tiny fibers into the environment that can harm our planet and its inhabitants. The fashion industry significantly contributes to microfiber pollution, with denim being one of the top contributors. Understanding the entire denim manufacturing process, from material sourcing to post-consumer waste, can help us reduce our environmental impact. We can take action by choosing quality over quantity, reducing our laundry habits, using a filter to capture microfibers in the wash, and supporting companies committed to sustainable practices. By taking action, we can all help reduce the amount of microfiber pollution in our environment and protect our planet's health.

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