Denise Chow, NBC NEWS
The plastic bottles, straws and grocery bags that wash ashore on beaches are some of the most visible signs that society’s intoxication with plastic is taking a toll on the environment. But scientists say there is another source of plastic pollution that is just as pervasive and even more difficult to clean up — and it’s hiding in our clothes.
Most clothing contains synthetic fabrics such as polyester or nylon that are essentially constructed from thin plastic fibers. These fabrics have become fixtures in closets around the world because they are durable and cheap to make. Stretchy, sweat-wicking workout clothes, water-resistant rainwear and fleece sweaters are all made of synthetics — not to mention many T-shirts, dresses and jeans that contain a cotton-synthetic blend.
These tiny bits of plastic pose a daunting environmental challenge. As so-called microfibers shed off clothing, they eventually end up in the ocean, where they can be ingested by fish and other seafood that humans eat.
“This is the microplastic pollution that we don’t talk about as much because it’s unseen, but these microfibers are everywhere,” said Sarah-Jeanne Royer, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. “We’ve sampled them at the North Pole, in Antarctica, at the top of mountains and even at the bottom of the Mariana Trench — everywhere in the world.”
Most microfiber pollution occurs when people wash their clothes. A 2016 study by researchers at the University of Plymouth in the U.K. estimated that up to 700,000 microfibers could be released in a single load of laundry, roughly equivalent to the surface area of a pack of gum.