You may have heard that microplastics are polluting our ocean and disrupting ecosystems. You may not know that the fashion industry is a large producer of microplastic pollution. When we wash our clothing in our washing machine, some fibers break off and are rushed out through our sewers and into our water system. Here’s what you need to know about clothing microplastics and how to reduce your impact.

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are small bits of plastic that result from waste containing plastic breaking down. The microplastics found in clothing are microfibers because of their shape and structure. Most microplastics from clothing come from polyester and polyester blends. According to researchers, there are over 170 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean. That’s a lot of plastic ending up in an already delicate ecosystem. Such prevalence is concerning because many organisms ingest the microplastics, disrupting the food chain.

What do microplastics have to do with clothing?

Just over 70% of the microplastic pollution comes from clothing, particularly those made of polyester fibers. This means that clothing made from polyester, nylon, acrylic, polyamide, etc., have plastic particles in their structure. When these items are washed, they shed plastic microfibers. These microfibers aren’t only a problem for our oceans; they have been found in outdoor air and indoor air, as well as dust particles on the floor.

Why we should be concerned about microplastics in our clothing

Not only are microplastics dangerous to organisms in the ecosystem, but they’re also not great for our lungs.  Researchers found that clothing fibers slow lung development and recovery from illnesses and travel throughout the body once ingested or inhaled.

What you can do about microplastics in your clothing

Staying away from fast fashion is a great start to combating the microfibers and microplastics problem. Avoiding overconsumption of clothing is a great preventative measure, as is choosing clothing made from natural fibers that have been sustainably grown.

Since many microfiber plastics are released during the laundering process, laundering clothing less often helps tackle this problem. It’s important to ensure you’re washing full loads, as the water-to-clothing ratio plays an important part in reducing the number of microfibers shed during a load of laundry. Avoid laundering synthetic fleece, as this is one of the biggest shedders of microfibers – instead, spot-clean it.

Surprisingly, this is one area where buying secondhand and upcycling doesn’t help. Unfortunately, recycled polyesters appear to shed more, not less, when it comes time to launder them. Part of this happens during recycling, but these products also appear to shed more during laundering. It is best to spot-clean such products or use laundry filters or bags to prevent shedding from entering our ecosystem.

You can purchase laundry filters or special products that help capture the fibers before they enter the waterways. Washing clothing likely to shed in a special laundry bag or adding a ball that attracts microfibers to your laundry can help. So can adding a filter to your water system.

It’s also important to write to representatives and policy-makers and support sustainable fashion companies that have demonstrated a commitment to avoiding plastic in their production lines. Microplastics and microfibers won’t go away anytime soon — their volume is too great. Instead, it will take a concentrated effort from everyone in the fashion industry, from designers to producers to consumers, to reduce the environmental impact of fashion.