How To Reduce Microfiber Pollution

Studies show that our clothing breaks down into plastic microfibers that end up in our oceans, inside fish and other food sources, and then on our dinner plates. Find out how you can help reduce microfiber pollution.

Woman and child doing laundry

Before you buy that trendy new top in the flash online sale that just popped up on your phone, take a good look at the material it’s made of and ask yourself whether you’d feel comfortable eating it for dinner.

As horrifying as it sounds, tiny plastic fibers from our clothing known as microfibers – a type of microplastic – are making their way from our washing machines into our oceans and then into our food chain. Studies have discovered disturbing amounts of microfibers in the seafood we eat, and the small plastic particles have even been found in tap water, sea salt, beer and honey.

While the health effects of microfibers on humans are still unclear as the first-large scale studies are currently underway, we do know that plastics leach dangerous chemicals such bisphenol A (BPA) and bisphenol S (BPS) when they degrade. These toxins have been shown to cause a range of health problems, including reproductive disorders, heart disease and certain types of cancer.

Microfibers also absorb toxic chemicals from the environment which are then released when fish and mammals consume them. So, even if the plastic fibers themselves aren’t releasing chemicals into our food, they’re potent carriers of harmful toxins.

Fast fashion is to blame

“Fast fashion” retailers have been pushing cheap, trendy, disposable clothing on consumers since the turn of the century, and it’s fair to say that their campaign has been enormously successful. Sales of clothing nearly doubled from $1 trillion in 2002 to $1.8 trillion in 2015, and the average consumer now buys 60 percent more items and keeps them half as long as they did 15 years ago.

To keep up with the high demand while keeping costs low, many clothing manufacturers have turned to inexpensive and readily available synthetic fibers such as polyester, which is now used to make about 60 percent of our clothes.

While synthetic fibers have certain advantages over cotton – they need a lot less water and they don’t require pesticides – they do produce significantly larger amounts of C02 emissions and pump microfibers into our waterways at an alarming rate.

Researchers at Plymouth University in the UK found that each clothes wash releases more than 700,000 microscopic plastic fibers into the environment. And some experts believe that cheaper clothes shed more fibers than good-quality ones because their fibers aren’t as long or spun as well.

What can we do to reduce microfiber pollution?

Several solutions to the microfiber problem have been proposed by environmental organizations and private companies around the world. These include an anti-shed coating applied to clothes, a nanoball that goes into the wash and captures microfibers, a filter added to the washing machine itself, a waterless washing machine, and a special laundry bag that traps shedding fibers inside.

But until these technologies are widely available, what can you do to reduce your production of microfibers? Here are six easy steps you can take.

  1. Buy less: Approximately 40 percent of our clothes are rarely or never worn, so only buy items you really need.
  2. Buy high-quality items: Seek out companies that use high-quality materials that shed fewer microfibers. Or look for eco, fair-trade and sustainable labels that make clothing from natural materials such as bamboo and organic cotton. We love brands like Oeuf, who use 100% baby alpaca wool, Altelier Choux who use 100% organic cotton and non-toxic inks, and Australian brand, Early Riser for their 100% organic cotton baby basics.
  3. Extend the life of your clothing: Not only will doubling the lifespan of your clothing from one year to two create fewer microfibers than buying new items, it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 24 percent over the course of the year. Try repairing, restyling or upcycling items you’ve stopped wearing.
  4. Have a clothes-swapping party: Invite a few friends over, open a bottle of wine and have fun swapping clothes. What’s old is new again! The same goes for kids clothes, pass them on to friends and family once your tots outgrow them.
  5. Wash your clothes less frequently: Ask yourself whether your fleece jacket really needs to be washed or it can wait until next week. Use the delicate cycle when possible to reduce the number of microfibers that are broken off your clothes. And always use an earth-friendly laundry detergent.


Continue exploring

  • Did you know that toxic chemicals in your couch can enter your breast milk? Or that toddlers and infants playing on the floor are at greatest risk for exposure? Find out more about flame retardants and how to avoid them.
  • Looking for ways to go plastic-free? Green Living expert, Aida Garcia Toledo, shares her simple tips on how to reduce plastic usage as a family.