Heard of Microbeads? There’s a Bigger Plastic Threat to our Oceans

Heard of Microbeads? There’s a Bigger Plastic Threat to our Oceans

There’s plastic in our oceans. We see it on the news, in magazine articles, on Facebook, or rather, we see the result: pictures of animals and birds tangled in fishing netting, trapped in plastic packaging, ingesting carrier bags and other floating plastic, or feeding plastic bottle tops and lighters to their young instead of food.

That’s just the plastic we see, but there is a lot more plastic in the ocean.

Plastic that’s too small for us to see. Microplastics.

(Officially, microplastics are plastics that measure 5mm or less, but often they are less than 1mm.) We might not be able to see them, but they still have a huge impact on the oceans. First up, they still get eaten by marine life. Small fish eat smaller pieces of plastic, and as we go up the food chain and these fish are eaten by bigger fish, the amount of plastic increases. If we eat fish, there’s a chance that this plastic is ending up on our plates.

The other big issue with plastics in the ocean, is that plastics are lipophilic, meaning they attract lipids and fats. (If you’ve ever used a plastic container to store something oily, you might have noticed that it’s very hard to get clean afterwards. That’s because plastic is attracted to the oil.) It’s not just water and plastics and fish in the ocean. There are a lot of chemicals. Like POPs. They might have a fun name, but POPs are persistent organic pollutants: man-made chemicals that take a long time to break down. Chemicals like DDT, PCBs, brominated flame retardants and other pesticides. These chemicals might have been banned decades ago, but all rivers lead to the ocean, and they persist here. They don’t just persist, they are attracted to the plastics in the ocean, so become concentrated here.

The smaller the plastic, the bigger the surface area in proportion, and the more POPs. This toxic combination is entering the food chain…and potentially ending up in our food.

Microbeads – a Threat to Our Oceans

Microbeads have been receiving a lot of attention recently, with organisations like 5 Gyres putting pressure on companies to stop using them and the Story of Stuff launching a Ban the Bead campaign to raise awareness. Microbeads are tiny balls of plastic added to cosmetic products to act as exfoliants, basically because they are cheaper than using natural ingredients like sugar, salt, coffee, apricot kernels…the list goes on. They aren’t just in face scrubs either – they are even found in toothpaste!

These tiny plastic beads are washed down drains when these products are used, and end up at water treatment plants… however, they are too small to be collected by filters, and so are washed into the ocean.

The Plastic Problem Hiding in the Closet

It’s easy to get mad about microbeads because it’s easy to see that they are completely pointless. Especially as a solution exists – there are natural alternatives out there with the same exfoliating properties, but with the added bonus of being biodegradable. However, there’s another problem that’s not so easy to see and can hardly be put in the “pointless” category…and it’s hiding in our closets.

Our clothes.

Most of us have items of clothing made of plastic. Think polyester, acrylic and nylon: these fabrics are made of synthetic (plastic) fibres. When we wash our clothes in a washing machine, some of these fibres are shed and go with the waste water to the water treatment plants. “Some” isn’t even close to the actual amount. Research conducted in 2011 showed that a single synthetic garment can release more than 1900 fibres per wash.

As with microbeads, these tiny microfibres, maybe less than 1mm in diameter, are too small to be collected by filters, and so are washed into the ocean. The study estimates that a large proportion of microplastic fibres found in the marine environment are the direct result of us doing our laundry.

Laundry Day, Tarifa Peter Morgan via Flickr
Every time we wash our clothes, we send thousands of plastic microfibres down the drain…and into the ocean.

Are Microfibres a Bigger Threat Than Microbeads?

If we talk in numbers, maybe not. The amount of microbeads in some products is staggering. A 2015 study found that 5ml of product can contain between 5,000 and 95,000 beads. Then again, if your laundry basket consists of four polar fleeces (which are the clothing item found to release the most fibres) that’s 7,600 fibres, and fibres are bigger than beads…

The issue isn’t so much about numbers. The issue is perception. Whereas microbeads are almost universally recognised as completely pointless (except maybe the pharmaceutical companies who stand to make bigger profits using them) and environmentally destructive, clothing made using plastic fibres is seen as a good thing.  An environmentally responsible thing, even.

Thinking that makes no sense? It’s because several brands have started using waste plastic to make clothes, recycling the plastic and transforming it into fibres that can be spun into garments. Taking plastic bottles, and turning them into T shirts. One of the most popular garments to make from these plastic fibres is polar fleece. Which, ironically, is the fabric that sheds the most microfibres upon washing.

These companies (and there are several, Patagonia being the most well known) promote this clothing as eco-friendly, claiming it is a proactive solution to plastic pollution, and even tallying the plastic bottles saved from landfill. Yet if these fibres are being released, unseen, into our waterways every time we do our laundry, isn’t the problem just being shifted from land to sea?

The perception is that by using a waste product (plastic bottles) to make a new product, we are using fewer resources and discarding less. Yet this system is flawed. It isn’t a cycle. Plastic bottles aren’t being turned into new plastic bottles, they are being turned into garments. New plastic bottles are made from virgin plastic. This isn’t discouraging people from purchasing new plastic bottles – if anything, it sends a message that it’s fine to consume single-use plastic bottles as the plastic is recycled afterwards. Similarly, it sends a message that it’s fine to buy new clothes, because they are made of recycled materials and are therefore eco-friendly. It reinforces the message that we can consume our way to sustainability.

Bales of Recyclables Walter Parenteau via Flickr
Just a fraction of the single-use plastic bottles collected every single day for recycling. Seriously, how many polar fleeces does the world need?

Want to Keep Our Oceans Plastic-Free?

Here’s a few ideas to get you started. Consume as little plastic as possible. Look for alternatives, and opt for reusables where you can. Dispose of what you do use responsibly. If you see plastic (or any litter), pick it up. Join a beach clean-up. Avoid plastic microbeads in beauty products. Add pressure to the pharmaceutical companies to remove microbeads from products by signing a petition or writing a letter. Choose natural fibres over polyester, acrylic and nylon, and try to limit the plastic in your laundry basket.

Whilst it’s great that companies are trying their hardest to keep plastics out of landfill, and looking for ways to create new and useful products out of waste items, plastic clothing in its current format is creating as many problems as it’s trying to solve. Trying to keep plastic out of landfill only to add to plastic pollution in the ocean isn’t the eco-friendly option. It is damaging the very environment it is trying to save.

Cover image credit: “Plastic Beaches” by Claire Sambrook via Flickr

23 Responses to Heard of Microbeads? There’s a Bigger Plastic Threat to our Oceans

  1. Great post! This has reaffirmed my decision to wash clothes as little as possible – ONLY when they’re actually dirty (which is often only after 4-5 wears) – less time, less effort, less energy, less washing powder, less water… and less microfibres in the oceans!

    But your post also brings my dilemma of the week to mind, maybe you can solve it for me? I’ve almost used up all the cosmetics I hoarded in my early 20s, and I’ve moved onto using up some hand scrub I bought maybe 7 years ago. I was horrified to find plastic in the ingredients. Now that it’s purchased, what do you think is the best thing to do with it?

    Throw the nearly full bottle straight into landfill? Use it up and recycle the packaging? Give it to someone, possibly offsetting them buying a new bottle of scrub? Or perhaps make a statement by sending it back to the company (meaning it would end up in landfill along with postage packaging, but it might generate change).

    • I had the same dilemma when i got rid of my cleaning chemicals. I ended up putting them all in a box and some one from free cycle took them away, I figure its one less some one else will buy.

    • Haha, that’s a great point! I’m a great believer that if it doesn’t smell or have visible dirt, it isn’t dirty! Sadly my husband is of the belief that if something has been looked at and he’s thought of wearing it, it probably needs a wash! ; )

      I think if the ingredients are harmful (including products with microbeads), then it’s probably best not to use them. But I feel your pain at throwing things away! If you’re feeling committed you could post the items back to the manufacturers outlining why you’re no longer using them.. I think that’s a great idea but takes a bit of extra effort! Or empty the contents into newspaper, throw that away and recycle the packaging? If you know someone who is happy to use it up, pass it on (unless it has microbeads in it!). I feel bad about passing on things I wouldn’t use myself, particularly if they have harmful ingredients…I feel like it’s never going to encourage anyone else to change!

      Do let me know what you decide to do!

  2. Agh this is a tough one, as there are some situations where synthetics are the preferred option (for stretch, for exercising and moisture wicking). As a rule though, i do stick to natural fibres mostly, but I’m not fastidious either… I like the idea of less washing, and definitely wash trousers once in a blue moon, but cotton button up shirts get washed after a wear and reironed. Fashion and standards to set as a boss :s

    • Oh I totally agree! I don’t think I’d ever be able to get my wardrobe completely plastic-free, but I’ve rather the ration was the other way round. I also think even knowing what my clothes are made of and making that part of the purchasing decision is important!

      I’m also a great fan of less washing! ; )

  3. Hello Lindsay,

    I just want to say how much I appreciate your posts! You are doing a great job sharing your knowlwedge, so that all of us can do better.when it comes to preserving our planet.

    Wishing you well,
    Carol

  4. All these things we don’t think about :( Now if I can just talk my husband into not getting non iron shirts for work.

  5. Thank you, Lindsay! I have completely given up trying to explain to friends and family why I don’t wear fleece which is really warm in the winter when I am always cold. Yes, it’s comfortable but I just layer. I’m not saying my clothes are perfect, I do have some items that aren’t 100% cotton but its getting there. Btw, I know tell people I don’t wear fleece because it causes too much static electricity. People understand that and don’t question me further.

    • Layering is underrated! ; ) I don’t think there is such a thing as perfect – or if there is, I will never be at that point! And that’s okay. To me the most important thing is about making conscious choices – knowing why I’ve chosen something, and ideally knowing what it’s made of and where it’s come from, too.

      It’s interesting that people question plastic pollution, but they don’t question static electricity as a reason not to wear fleece!

  6. Super post. We need to raise the profile of this issues! It is on the radar of textile researchers but the clothing industry doesn’t want to engage.

    I agree that in some cases synthetic polymers are unavoidable. Personally I don’t want to swap my elastic clad bra for a corset ;-) but sensible washing practices and an increase use of airing your clothes would go a long way!

    And personally I have never seen the appeal of a fleece, not even on a Scottish hill when it is blowing a gale! Layering and if you live in the UK, well worn Shetland wool are far warmer than a static scratchy “fleece”. What a con away to use the word that denotes an animal coat for a garment made out of plastic!

    • I’m hearing you Meg! I was shocked when I read that the researcher that wrote the paper contacted the clothing companies, expecting them to be fully on board with further research into fibres that shed less ,and none of them were in the slightest bit interested in talking to him!

      And I agree. There are places where synthetic fibres are useful. But there’s plenty more where it’s just unnecessary, and that’s what I’m going to focus on. I want my jumpers to be made of wool, and my T shirts to be made of cotton : )

      That’s funny – I never registered that the term “fleece” has been stolen like that and tarnished with plastic!

  7. Thanks for putting together this very important post! Did you know that the Plastic Soup Foundation is working on a filter for washing machines to avoid that plastics go down the drain? http://www.plasticsouplab.org/showcases/washing-machine-filter/ Still not the perfect solution, but at least this may help avoid trashing our oceans.

    I generally avoid buying synthetic clothes, but I have not yet found a proper alternative for my running outfit. Recently, I bought a pair of merino wool running tights… with only a 4% lycra. As wool does not need to be washed very often, this may be a good solution for the winter. I still need to find running shorts for summer time though. The pair I use now are 7 years old and really worn out…

    • Thank you! No, I didn’t and it sounds great – thanks so much for sharing! If we can move as much as possible back to natural fibres, and use these filters for all the synthetic fibres that we can’t avoid, the ocean would be a much healthier place : )

  8. Thanks Lindsay, for a detailed and informative post. I’ve read about the microbeads accumulating here in the Great Lakes – scary – but hadn’t heard about the microfibers. (interesting link above about a washing machine filter)

    • Thanks Sandy. The issue definitely doesn’t get as much press as it should… it’s probably easier to persuade people to ditch microbeads than it is polyester clothing! The washing machine filter sounds great – not a perfect solution, but is there ever one? We need to stop plastic getting into our oceans and this is one way to help achieve this goal!

Share your thoughts!