If you own clothing, you probably own something that’s made from polyester. Polyester is a synthetic textile made from plastic that can be used as an alternative for almost any fabric, and because of its versatility and cheap price point, polyester has positioned itself as one of the most used and consumed fabrics in the world.
The problem with polyester is that it’s made of plastic, and little pieces of plastic shed off of the polyester into our natural environments as it’s used. These particles are called microplastics, and they make up 94% of the plastics in our oceans.
Microplastics have been found in our soils, tap water, marine environments, freshwater environments, air, and bodies. 35% are getting there through the laundering of plastic textiles, and the remaining 65% are from the disposal and use of other plastic goods.
While there’s no conclusive research about the exact impacts of microplastics on our health, based on what we know about plastic, we know it can’t be good. According to a report released by the Center for International Environmental Law, plastics can cause endocrine disruption (which messes with our normal hormonal functions), brain development issues (primarily in young children), and impairment of the immune system.
The only difference between microplastics and regular plastics is their size and visibility. Thus, it’s very likely that we will experience the same health impacts from the two. However, the magnitude at which we feel these impacts will depend on how much microplastic accumulates in our bodies, which is dependent on your exposure.
To avoid microplastics, you need an understanding of where they come from and where they end up. As mentioned earlier, a lot of microplastics come from textiles like polyester, acrylic, and nylon, but they also come from plastic containers, bottles, and food packaging.
These plastics get into our natural environments in a few different ways- one being laundry. When you put your clothes in the washer, some of the fibers come loose and turn into microplastics that pollute our waterways. The same happens when you put your clothes in the dryer, except instead of polluting our waterways, they get into natural habitats when we dispose of our dryer lint and some of the particles get picked up by wind.
The fishing industry is also a huge contributor to plastic and microplastic pollution, specifically in our oceans. National Geographic found that 46% of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the largest collection of floating trash in the world, came from fishing nets, and a large proportion of the remaining 54% also came from the fishing industry.
A lot of microplastics also come from the breaking down of other plastic goods. When things like plastic bottles and toothbrushes end up on our oceans, they get battered by waves and wind, causing them to break down into microplastics. Fish will then mistake these particles for food and eat them, meaning if you eat fish, you’re most likely eating microplastics as well.
Microplastics also get into our bodies when we simply drink water. One study looked at both bottled and tap water and found that 93% of the bottled water and 83% of the tap water they looked at had traces of microplastics.
A lot of microplastics have also been found in our soils as a result of plastics breaking down in landfills, plastic mulch being applied to land, and wastewater being used for irrigation. These microplastics could get into our bodies through the food chain, but research isn’t conclusive.
While the presence of microplastics is overwhelming, there are things you can do to help curb the issue: avoiding supporting the fishing industry, only washing and drying synthetic clothes in bags meant to trap microplastics, and reducing your consumption of plastic goods are all ways you can help curb the issue. To spare your health, avoid eating fish and add a water distiller to your tap water to avoid microplastics.
Is the blog manager for Zero Waste Club, combining her love for writing with her passion for all things environmental sustainability. She is currently a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she is studying journalism, environmental studies, and food studies in hopes of building a career in environmental activism. You can find her on Instagram as @kaylaguilliams.