Can you spot the microfibres amongst the plankton?

What are microfibres?

Microfibres are shed from clothing, woven fabric, ropes and fishing nets.

Microfibres are small, often too small to see easily with the naked eye. They can be as tiny as 3 microns. Human hair is 50-100 microns. A red blood cell is 6-10 microns.

Synthetic clothing which includes anything from polyester shirts to yoga pants and fleeces, can shed microfibres during washing and wearing.

Microfibres from fishing nets and ropes can be caused by the sun’s UV degradation, age or wear and tear.

Thank you to The Story of Stuff for this comprehensive overview of the microfibre issue

What should we know about microfibre pollution?

Microfibre pollution is a complex and multifaceted issue. As with all microplastics, the full extent of plastic pollution is unknown but research is ongoing. The many stakeholders, from clothing manufacturers to consumers, washing machine companies and water treatment facilities all need to be part of the solution for tackling this issue. Unlike plastic microbead use in personal care products, there isn’t an easy source point reduction action, such as not using plastic microbeads.

One clothing company, Patagonia, has an environmental ethos at its core and has accepted the role they play in producing outdoorwear that contributes to microfibre pollution. The company, in an effort to understand the issue in depth, has commissioned research with leading US universities. The results from the first study are below.

Companies that produce nylon and polyester clothing contribute significant amounts of microfibre pollution to the ocean. But quantities are unknown as is the extent of harm to which these microfibres contribute.

Quality Matters Results from the study show a low-quality, generic brand fleece shed approximately 170 percent more over the course of its lifespan than high-quality products.

Washing machines represent an integral step in the path to pollution. Jackets washed in top-load washers shed approximately seven times as many microfibers than in front-loaders.

Wastewater treatment plants filter 65-92% of microfibers entering their system, but there is still release of a significant volume of microfibre waste into the environment.

What can you do to reduce microfibre pollution?

  • Wash synthetic clothing less frequently in a short, cold wash cycle
  • Wash clothing with a full load – there is less friction
  • Clean out washing machine and dryer lint filters and put the lint in the rubbish bin, not down the drain
  • Use a filter bag when washing fleece or synthetic clothing
  • Buy natural fibre clothing instead of synthetic and avoid fast fashion
  • Don’t buy what you don’t need!

Did You Know?

Each laundry load can shed up to 700,000 microfibres! As synthetic fabrics disintegrate, they will shed more plastic microfibres.

Did You Know?

It is estimated that at least 0.5 million tonnes of microfibres leak into oceans every year – 16 times more than plastic microbeads from cosmetics.  

Did You Know?

1 in 3 shellfish; 1 in 4 fish and 67% of all species tested from fish markets in California had microfibres in them.

Did You Know?

A single garment in a domestic washing machines can produce more than 1,900 fibers per wash!

Reports & Resources