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12 • 19 • 2022

Microfibers: Tiny Pieces of Plastic Pollution that Require Big Solutions

By Miho Ligare

Plastic microfibers are a type of microplastic (plastic particle less than 5 mm) shaped as fibrous material. These tiny fibers can come from synthetic apparel, such as clothing made from polyester, nylon, etc., car tires, fishing gear and more. In North America alone, washing machines release an estimated 3.5 quadrillion microfibers into the ocean every year through a process known as microfiber shedding. Once out in the environment, they are nearly impossible to capture due to their small size. Microplastics are found everywhere, even in the most pristine parts of the world, where they are ingested by wildlife, potentially working their way up the food chain and ending up on our plates.

When considering solutions to address microfiber pollution in the context of textile sustainability, a cross-sector approach is necessary. This includes textile and fashion industry representatives, researchers, policymakers and others. We need innovative solutions that tackle this issue not only at the source but across the supply chain. 

As we sailed off shore towards the San Fransisco bridge on the Mathew Turner meeting professionals from diverse backgrounds, I had the opportunity to do just that through Materevolve's Textile x Ocean Connector Sail. I watched as researchers dropped a mantra trawl in the bright blue water to sample microplastics in the surface waters of the bay. I also engaged in discussions about non-plastic materials and natural fibers such as cotton, wool and hemp that are effective alternatives to synthetic materials, along with the barriers and challenges faced in scaling up and making their products mainstream and accessible. 

I left the workshop feeling inspired but also wanting more time to connect and continue the discussion. Microfiber pollution is a complex issue, but I was heartened to see the diverse stakeholders invested in finding solutions to this problem. By finding solutions that support and incentivize the production of textiles not derived from fossil fuels, are less toxic, and are better for the environment and our communities, we can look and feel good about the clothes we wear.

A manta trawl used during the workshop to collect microfiber samples in the San Francisco Bay

Everyone has a role to play! Here are a few actions on how you can help reduce microfiber pollution:

Check out more individual actions you can take here.

Header image: Microscope image shows a closer view of microfibers. Photo: Mathew Watkins