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Environment | Plastic

Micro plastic fibres in our oceans

We’ve all heard about microbeads and large pieces of plastic film filling our oceans but have you heard about micro plastic fibres?

This has become a very hot topic in recent years, mainly because the severity of the problem was not discovered until 2011. Then, work by Mark Browne, Imogen Napper and Professor Richard Thompson highlighted the issue.

So what are micro-plastic fibres?

​The name is a bit of a giveaway. They are minute pieces of plastic that are shed every time we wash clothes made from synthetic materials such as polyester, nylon, acrylic and spandex. This happens at standard temperatures around 30C and 40C. These pieces of plastic are really tiny, only around 15 micrometres or 0.000015 metres across and about 6mm long.

It is estimated that a 6kg wash load of various synthetic materials produces the following number of fibres:

  • 138,000 from polyester cotton fabrics
  • 500,000 from polyester fabrics
  • 730,000 from acrylic fabrics

Of course this does not happen if you use clothes made from natural fibres such as wool, cotton, hemp, bamboo and rayon, although beware, some of these products require vast volumes of water and pesticides to produce, nothing is ever clear cut.

Take a look at some clothes in your wardrobe and check which are synthetic and which are natural, you may have a shock.

Unfortunately micro-plastic fibres end up in our oceans, they pass from our washing machines into the local water system and eventually into the ocean. The sheer scale of the problem is mind blowing, think how many washing machines there are in UK and how often we all use them!

Micro-plastic fibres have been found from the Earth’s poles to the equator, there is nowhere untouched. We are all at risk.

It is now estimated that 85% of the human – man made material found on the shoreline are micro-plastic fibres and match the types of material found in nylon and acrylic clothing.

Once in the ocean, what happens to these fibres?

The image above was taken by Richard Kirby (AKA the Plankton Pundit). It shows an arrow worm ingesting a micro-plastic fibre. This organism is part of the planktonic life in our oceans and sits close to the bottom of the food chain.

Alarmingly, not only will this organism die but it is likely to be eaten by a creature further up the food chain, this creature is then eaten by another organism slightly further up the chain and so on. But why should this matter? The micro plastic fibre is so small that surely it does not affect the larger creatures in a food chain. Unfortunately this is not the case because as the plastic moves from organism to organism it bio-accumulates.

This happens because once the plastic has been ingested, it transfers from (the animals) stomachs to their circulation system and actually accumulates in their cells, thus toxic pollutants increase in concentration as they move up the food chain, until eventually they reach us. By the time we eat fish, shellfish or crustaceans such as crabs and lobsters we could be ingesting relatively high levels of toxins.

Currently it is difficult to carry out meaningful tests on the effects of plastic toxins on man because every human is contaminated by plastic toxins to some extent or other, that means we do not have a control reference point, however other tests indicate that toxins present in plastics or additives can cause a wide range of possible symptoms including:

  • Skin rashes and lesions that can be cancerous
  • Nausea
  • Unexplained fatigue
  • Burning and itching
  • Unexplained headaches
  • Blurred vision
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Reoccurring sinus infections not previously experienced
  • Sudden inflammation and pain; especially in soft tissues

These can come from ingesting or even just skin contact from chemicals such as Bisphenol A, PFC’s (added to plastics to make them last longer), PCB’s absorbed from the aquatic environment by plastics (PCB’s were banned in 1979 but are a highly toxic persistent pollutant still present in our oceans).

As you can see this is a serious problem because micro-plastic fibres do not discriminate between rich and poor, old and young or even organism type, they are polluting everything.

So what can we do? Here are a few ideas:

  • Take a look at your buying habits and try swapping synthetics for natural fibres such as cotton, wool, hemp, silk, rayon and bamboo
  • Wash clothes at lower temperatures
  • Look for less aggressive detergents
  • Hang dry rather than using a tumble dryer (it is less aggressive on your clothes)
  • Explain the issue to family and friends
  • If you can, install a water softener, you will need less detergent and there is less damage
  • Encourage friends and family to buy less clothes and if they buy synthetics suggest they buy better quality clothes, they release fewer fibres.
  • Use social media to spread the word – please share this article!!

It is down to us to make the change. Form more information please visit the following links: