Your Synthetic Clothes May Be Polluting the Ocean

A beach off the coast of Tarragona, Spain.
Photo: AP

Our actions carry consequences, and that includes the clothes we buy. Off the coast of Tarragona in northeastern Spain, the waters are full of microplastics. Most come from clothing fibers, according to new research.

When we shop, few of us stop to wonder what the clothing is made out of. We just ask ourselves how cute or comfy it is, right? However, much of the stuff we wear is made out of plastic: Synthetic fibers are woven to create our polyester leggings and sweat-proof workout clothing. The synthetic fibers market was valued at more than $51 billion globally in 2016, according to a market report. And the industry is expected to keep growing.

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That’s creating problems for the environment, as this new research reminds us. Previous studies have demonstrated how our clothes can send microplastics into our water, but few have looked at specific ecosystems to see how much of the microplastic pollution come from what we wear.

The new research, led by scientists from Rovira I Virgili University in Tarragona and presented last week at the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry Conference in Helsinki, Finland, looked at microplastic and nanoplastic pollution in the sea water, sand, and sediment of the coastal Balearic Sea, beginning in 2018. The group analyzed seven beaches and found microplastics throughout them all—anywhere from 2,880 items per kilogram to more than 36,000 items per kilogram, study author Marta Schuhmacher, an environmental engineering professor at the university, told Earther in an email.

Somewhat surprisingly, up to 57 percent of the plastic particles the team found along the coast were clothing fibers, which don’t get filtered out in water treatment plants and eventually are discharged into the world’s water bodies.

The research hasn’t yet been published in a peer-reviewed paper—Schuhmacher said that should happen in September—so its findings should be taken with a grain of salt. But they’re also not so difficult to believe. After all, a study last year found that washing just 11 pounds of clothes we wash can result in more than 6 million microfibers getting released into the water supply. And we know that when these plastics wind up in our marine environment, fish and other sea creatures consume them.

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One of the beaches where researchers gathered samples.
Photo: URV

There’s no perfect solution to this. All clothing, synthetic or no, carries with an environmental footprint. But there may be small steps that we can take to reduce that footprint, like using softener when washing clothes, which helps reduce the number of microfibers released by 35 percent, according to the study from last year. And, of course, being mindful of what your clothing is made out of when shopping.

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We all have options, and it’s key to show clothing brands that we care about this stuff. Let your money talk.

Correction: This article has been corrected to note that the global synthetic fibers market was valued at 51 billion in 2016, not 51 million.

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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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