Microplastics: No Small Issue

Leading a “green” life is certainly a process. Every day I hear of some new catastrophe that is threatening our already-fragile planet. And while I’m learning to pick my battles — or at least be realistic about how many battles I can take on at once — there are some topics that really hit home. One issue that really grabbed my attention when I first learned about it is the issue of microbeads (also known by the more generic term “microplastics”).

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In case you hadn’t heard, microbeads are the tiny plastic pieces found in many personal-care products. While these tiny scrubbers can certainly help you get smooth skin, they also pollute our waterways (their small size makes them very difficult to filter out). Finding out that microbeads are one of the biggest contributors to the garbage patch — and oceanic pollution in general — launched me on a months-long journey to replace my microbead-laden facial scrub with a natural alternative. After a few years and a LOT of failed attempts at using things like coffee grounds or cold-pressed honey, I have finally settled into a happy natural-exfoliation routine (turns out there are some pretty great options in the organic section that are less messy)!
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Fast forward to the present and we’ve made considerable headway in the effort to eliminate microbeads: several major companies have pledged to phase them out of their products, and some states have passed legislation banning the manufacture and sale of products containing them (hooray for the recent victory in California)! However, we’re not out of the woods yet. And in case I was in danger of becoming complacent, I have just learned of ANOTHER way in which these microplastics are finding their way into the ocean: through synthetic clothing.

According to good ol’ Wikipedia, there are two types of microplastics: primary microplastics, which are made intentionally (like microbeads), and secondary microplastics, which are the result of the break-down of larger plastic materials. The synthetic clothing fibers I am speaking of fall into this second category. And while it comes as no surprise that big pieces of plastic break down into smaller pieces, I can honestly say that I never gave much thought to the fact that the plastic polluting our oceans could be coming from the clothes I wear to yoga class (what a terrible irony)!

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According to this article, a single piece of synthetic clothing can shed approximately 1,900 microfibers every time it is washed! Dr. Mark Anthony Browne, an ecologist with the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), arrived at this number after conducting an experiment in which washing-machine wastewater was examined to determine the microplastic content after a regular cycle. Even more shocking is the fact that Dr. Browne went on to study the plastic debris found on 18 shoreline sites around the world and found that 85% appeared to be consistent with the type of fibers shed by synthetic clothing. This means that the plastic pollution we are causing unwittingly — in the form of secondary microplastics — is more of an issue than the pollution being caused by the intentional manufacture of primary microplastics (like microbeads). Check out this video to find out more about how these microplastics affect habitats, wildlife, and humans.

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So what can we do about this? I certainly don’t have all the answers, but there is nothing worse than finishing an article that opens your eyes to some terrible calamity happening in the world and then being left without any suggestions about what can be done or info about what is already underway. The simplest suggestion is this: wear natural fibers. Organic cotton is a versatile and practical option for most day-to-day clothing, and its breathability makes it more comfortable than synthetics anyway. When it comes to technical wear — that is, the clothing we wear for exercise or in extreme weather conditions — there is nothing better than merino wool! Wool truly is cool in the summer and warm in the winter (which is why we love to use it in our bedding here at Lifekind).

Of course, changing your clothing doesn’t solve the issue of all of the microplastics that have already found their way into the ocean, nor does it prevent the pollution that is likely to be caused by the millions of synthetic garments already in existence. Fortunately, there are organizations in place that you can partner with to help raise awareness and address these issues. One such organization, 5 Gyres, is busy petitioning our legislators, organizing clean-up efforts, and even launching research expeditions that you can be part of! The ecologist that I mentioned before, Dr. Browne, is heading up a campaign called Benign by Design that aims to form a collaboration between clothing manufacturers, textile suppliers, and environmental scientists to find low-impact, cost-effective alternatives to the fabrics being used today. You can help this cause gain momentum by spreading the word!

Microplastics may be small in size, but the impact they have on the environment (and therefore on YOU and ME) is huge. We can’t afford to let this one slip past us, so let’s step up and do our part to get microplastics out of our waters!