Scouring clothes turns sour for the planet 

Scouring clothes turns sour for the planet 

Did You Know

Turtles strangled with plastic cords, beached whales with ingested plastic, beaks of marine birds sealed with plastic flaps—these images speak the loudest on the plight of marine pollution. Over time, plastics strewn in the ocean degrade and become microplastics, which choke the internal organs of marine animals and impair their growth. This is a story we know. What we don’t is that of an equally nefarious pollutant lurking on us—in the fibres of our favourite garment—the microfibres.

Microfibres are tiny, invisible yarns of synthetic clothing like polyester, nylon or rayon. Most garments available today are made of synthetic fibres as they are cheaper and more durable than natural fibres like cotton or linen. No matter how many times you wash them, they don’t fade or wear out. That, unfortunately, is the deal-breaker. When synthetic clothes are hurled into the washing machine for a clean scour, the scrubbing and the action of detergents break down these fibres into thousands of tiny microfibres. This repeats for every wash. With no filters to catch them in the machines, they run with the drain water into our sewage and soon into rivers, lakes, and oceans.

The statistics of microfibre pollution are startling. One study estimates that about 80% of the plastic debris found on the beach today are microfibres. In the US, a quarter of the fish that is bought has microfibre in them. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources estimates that 0.6-1.7 million tonnes of microfibres are released into the ocean every year. Yet another study pegs the total number of microfibres in our oceans at 1.4 million trillion—about 200 million microfibres for every person on the planet!

Microfibres, like microplastics, are a threat to marine animals. Emerging studies show they are also wreaking havoc on our land. While we do not yet know how worse this is getting, no points for guessing what it will lead to! The choices we make today, in going back to natural fibres and choosing a colder wash cycle, could shape our future.

Research Matters