Your Synthetic Clothes May Be Polluting the Ocean

By Yessenia Funes on at

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 fibres, 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 fibres are woven to create our polyester leggings and sweat-proof workout clothing. The synthetic fibres market was valued at more than $51 million (£40.1 million) globally in 2016, according to a market report. And the industry is expected to keep growing.

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 analysed seven beaches and found microplastics throughout them all—anywhere from 2,880 items per kilogramme to more than 36,000 items per kilogramme, study author Marta Schuhmacher, an environmental engineering professor at the university, told Gizmodo in an email.

Somewhat surprisingly, up to 57 per cent of the plastic particles the team found along the coast were clothing fibres, 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 11lbs of clothes can result in more than 6 million microfibres 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.

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

There’s no perfect solution to this. All clothing, synthetic or no, carries with it 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 microfibres released by 35 per cent, according to the study from last year. And, of course, being mindful of what your clothing is made out of when shopping.

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