Synthetic clothing crisis: Microfibers mucking up our oceans

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel April 20, 2017

photo: public domain

photo: public domain

Those warm, cuddly fleece jackets and quick-dry synthetic fabrics that fill so many of our closets now have created a big problem for the world’s oceans. Every time they get washed, clothes made from synthetic fabric shed thousands of tiny microfibers. Carried along with dirty wash water to the sewer and on to the wastewater treatment plant, many microfibers are so small they pass right through wastewater filters and are carried all the way out to our bays and oceans.

Tiny microfibers have turned into an enormous problem. In 2011, British ecologist Mark Anthony Browne published research describing the discovery of microfibers—mostly synthetic polyester and acrylic—on beaches worldwide, but most highly concentrated near wastewater disposal sites. Suspecting that these microfibers came from laundered clothing, Browne filtered the water used to wash a single fleece jacket and retrieved 1,900 fibers.

A 2012 VU University Amsterdam study estimated that laundry wastewater contributes some two billion synthetic microfibers per second into Europe’s waterways, according to a 2015 article in Outside Magazine, “The Invisible Nightmare in Your Fleece.”

Marine scientists have estimated that microfibers account for some 85 percent of the plastic on the world’s shorelines. Tiny microfibers are very difficult to capture and remove. Worse still, these hair-like fibers are a magnet for toxic chemicals, pesticides and flame retardants that are commonly suspended in waterways.

Microfibers have worked their way into the marine food web. Fish and shellfish consume microfibers because they resemble food. Then their guts become clogged with these indigestible fibers. Fish and shellfish are also subjected to toxins clinging to microfibers.

According to a recent KQED Science report, UC Davis researchers examined the guts of fish from a market in Half Moon Bay and found that 25 percent contained man-made debris, of which 80 percent was microfibers. One-third of the oysters that the researchers studied also contained microfibers.

How to address this looming problem? If you look at each point in the life cycle of microfibers, from clothing manufacture to washing machines and wastewater treatment plants, where could changes most effectively occur? Expert panelists at the March 12 International Ocean Film Festival in San Francisco opined that it’s preferable to start at the source of the problem; in this case, with manufacturers of synthetic clothing.

Trouble is, the outdoor clothing industry has not yet produced a high-performance synthetic fabric that does not contribute to this growing problem.

California has been a leader in passing legislation to ban plastic bags and plastic microbeads from cosmetic products. Finding a legislative solution to the microfiber problem is more difficult because synthetic clothing is manufactured all over the world.

Water treatment plants could be part of the solution, if technology were developed to filter out more microfibers. Even so, microfibers could still pose a problem to human health if they are then used to make fertilizer and applied to cropland soils.

Ocean Film Festival panelist Stiv Wilson, a director of the “The Story of Stuff Project,” held out little hope for placing the onus on washing machine manufacturers, which are not responsible for the production of synthetic fabrics or clothing. Retrofitting or re-designing washing machines with effective filters would be expensive and take a long time.

Several companies have introduced products that consumers can buy to help filter out microfibers from their wash water. One is the Guppy Friend, a mesh laundry bag that you put your synthetic clothing in and throw in the washing machine. The bag collects microfiber residue, which the user disposes into the trash, instead of letting it wash down the drain into waterways.

Betsy Herbert serves on the boards of Sempervirens Fund, the Santa Cruz Mountains Bioregional Council, and the Center for Farmworker Families. You can contact her through her website at