OM in the News: The Tiny Plastics in Clothes Are Becoming a Big Problem

Makers of sportswear and fleece jackets are trying to address concerns about tiny plastic particles from synthetic clothing finding their way into seafood and drinking water. While the plastics backlash has focused on single-use products like straws, bottles and coffee cups, synthetic clothing is gaining attention because such garments shed plastic every time they are washed.

Each year, more than a half-million metric tons of microfibers—the equivalent of 50 billion plastic water bottles—enter the ocean from the washing of synthetic textiles, reports The Wall Street Journal (March 8, 2019). While all clothing sheds fibers when washed, synthetic particles—unlike wool and cotton—don’t biodegrade. Most conventional washing-machine filters aren’t designed to trap such tiny particles, and while wastewater-treatment plants capture a big slice, they don’t trap everything. The problem is worse in countries that use lots of synthetic clothing and have fewer wastewater-treatment plants.

The number of microfibers entering the ocean is forecast to accelerate as demand for clothes rises. More than 22 million metric tons of microfibers are estimated to enter the ocean between 2015 and 2050. Microplastics have turned up in seafood, drinking water, beer, honey and sugar, but the impact on human health is unclear. Research shows that ingesting microplastics can hurt the ability of planktonic organisms to feed and the ability of fish and marine worms to gain energy from food.

Pending bills in New York and California would require labels on clothes made from more than 50% synthetic material to tell consumers that these shed plastic microfibers when washed. Patagonia found fabrics shed lots of microfibers on the first wash, but few in subsequent washes. That suggests pretreating garments before they are sold could potentially capture and recycle what otherwise goes down consumers’ drains. H&M said it is exploring whether clothes can be designed to minimize shedding. The brand is monitoring the development of alternative biodegradable fibers.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. Is this a primarily a sustainability issue or a product design issue?
  2. Are your students aware of the problem?

OM in the News: The Tiny Plastics in Clothes Are Becoming a Big Problem