Here's an odd twist to the plastic marine debris problem: your laundry may be a major source of microscopic plastic particles found in the ocean. Until now, litter and spilled pellets have received most of the attention. But according to Clothing Sheds Microplastics Into Sea, from Chemical & Engineering News, synthetic fabrics are a major -- if often overlooked -- source. According to the story, researchers from University College Dublin collected samples of microplastics from 18 coastal sites around the world.
The particles' shapes and sizes indicated they were fibers of synthetic fabrics. The researchers used Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy to determine the fibers' chemical composition. They found that polyester made up about three-quarters of the plastics; the rest consisted of polyamide, polypropylene, and acrylic, a composition that matches that of textiles. The spectroscopy data led the team to think of washing clothes. So the researchers analyzed the water drained from frontloading washing machines after throwing fleece jackets, blankets, and synthetic business shirts into them. In one wash cycle, they found, a single piece of clothing shed more than 1,900 tiny fibers. The scientists also determined that the chemical composition of their coastal plastic samples matched that of microscopic plastic found in treated discharge they collected from two wastewater treatment plants in Australia. [Researcher Mark Anthony] Browne and his team concluded that plastic fragments from synthetic fabrics most likely flow from wastewater treatment plants down to the seashore, and perhaps out to sea.If other researchers confirm the findings, it will be interesting to see if:
- Scientists determine if this microscopic plastic is harmful,
- Clothing manufacturers, laundry products makers, or wastewater treatment plants can do anything to reduce the volume of microscopic plastics being released into the environment, and,
- Which community will be the first to suggest banning polyester slacks.