Against the deep blue of the north Pacific Ocean, somewhere off the coast of California, a 700,000sq kilometre gyre of marine debris particles sits ominously. Accumulated over the course of decades by the natural currents, the Great Pacific garbage patch, as the mass of plastic is described, poses a significant threat to the prosperity of marine life, including the flocks of seabirds that travel through the area, as they ingest hundreds of pieces of plastic, the result of photo-degradation caused by the fibre’s inability to biodegrade like organic debris, and subsequently splits into smaller and smaller particles, right through to the molecular level, where they enter the food chain.
Microplastic particles, including microfibres from synthetic clothing and textiles, are now ubiquitous in aquatic and land-based ecosystems across the world. In fact, it is estimated that 0.6-1.7 million tons of microfibres are released into the ocean every year, with new research by the University of Manchester, recently published in Nature Geoscience, finding the number of microplastic pieces in the world’s waterways is vastly greater than originally thought. Without active intervention, the abundance of these <5mm in diameter particles is set to increase as consumption of plastics and man-made fibres in clothing expands to meet demand from a rising world population and increasing regional incomes.
“An effective strategy for consumers to reduce their contribution to microfibre pollution would be to choose garments made from natural fibres.” – DR BEVERLEY HENRY
Microfibres can enter the environment through sources such as fibres shed from synthetic apparel during use and washing, or through other secondary sources, predominantly degradation and fragmentation of larger pieces of synthetic textile waste. While the full extent of the negative impacts of microplastic pollution on aquatic habitats and organisms is yet to be fully understood, the current research suggests physical, chemical and biological impacts are felt throughout the food chain including leaching of toxic chemicals and eventual starvation of host organisms.
Furthermore, fibre-shaped microplastics appear to be of greater environmental consequence than more regular shaped particles due to a tendency for entanglement in the digestive tract that can lead to blockages and a higher chance of compromised growth, reproduction or even starvation. Chemical impacts may also be enhanced since the larger surface area of fibres potentially allows greater sorption of harmful compounds and a higher retention in the gut allows more time for leakage of plastic additives. The full extent of the impact on human health is yet to be known, yet it is largely acknowledged that microplastics may enter the human body through the food chain and drinking water.