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First of all, what are microplastics? As the name implies, they are tiny plastic particles. The term was only coined in 2004 by Professor Richard Thompson to describe any piece of plastic smaller than 5mm. 

They are divided into two categories: primary microplastics that are manufactured as microplastics used, for example, to give the scrubby effect to exfoliant cosmetics (By now, illegals in many countries) and secondary microplastics that result from the breakdown – caused by exposure to environmental factors such as sun’s radiation and ocean’s  waves – of larger plastic items like water bottles. 

What’s the problem with then? The problem is that plastic never truly disappears, it never goes away, it only gets smaller, and it can take hundreds or thousands of years to decompose. It is not a coincidence that they represent the most common type of plastic pollution in the ocean where they end up carried by storms, water runoff and winds, and where they are consumed by fishes becoming a danger to our marine ecosystems and human health.  Moreover, recent research shows that, as plastics degrade, they emit greenhouse gases and, over time, give off more and more gas.

As Thompson demonstrated, a single plastic bag could be shredded into more than 1.75 million fragments. If we consider that 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year, with around one third destined for single-use products, we can only imagine how many microplastic fragments end up in the environment and how uncontrollable is the source of future emissions. 

Now, synthetic materials like polyester, nylon, spandex, fleece and acrylic, including fabrics made from recycled water bottles and fishing nets are the largest source of both primary and secondary microplastics, accounting for 34.8% of global microplastics pollution. 

When we machine-wash garment made with those fibres, that make up the 60% of clothing produced globally, these microscopic pieces of plastic, this time called microfibers, enter our sewage system. 

Thompson has shown that a 6kg wash load of acrylic clothing can release 700,000 microfibers and 1.4 million trillion microfibers that go directly to the oceans. 

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Microplastics are everywhere. Even car tires shed 20 grams of plastic dust every 100 km. 

But wait, this isn’t over. According to exclusive research by Orb at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, from New York to New Delhi, people who drink a glass of tap water are consuming a nice mix of microplastics with it. More than 83 per cent of samples Orb collected of five continents tested positive for the presence of plastic fibres in tap water and no specific procedure yet exists for filtering or containing them. 

On purpose or by accident, plastic fragments and chemicals infiltrate every aspect of our daily life. Is there any solution?  There are no simple solutions. Although climate change talks increased a lot in the last few years, plastic is still everywhere. Supermarkets don’t offer as first choice eco-friendly, and plastic-free products and buying sustainable clothing still isn’t the norm. Governments, brands, retailers, producers and citizens must act together to bring a real systemic change and end the exploitation of our planet. 

Governments must approve new legislation to deal with our escalating environmental problems. There have been several developments in microplastics legislation in the past few years: in February 2020 the French secretary of State for the Ecological and Inclusive Transition, was the first politician in the world to pass microfiber legislation and by January 2025, all new washing machines in France will have to include a filter that stops plastic particles from polluting our waterways. However, in many countries, these regulations are still missing. 

Also,  producers need to improve their production system, swap to a circular business model and create quality products made with materials that, at the end of their life, can be repurposed as a valuable resource. 

And what can we do? When it comes to clothing, it is essential to take care of our washing practices. The best solution is to wash them less and when cleaning them: 

– Hand wash if we can. 

– Use a shorter washing cycle at a lower temperature (often marked ‘eco’). The longer the wash, the more time for microplastic to be released. 

– Use a Guppy bag or a Cora ball that filter the tiniest microplastics, reduces fibre shedding and protects your clothes. You just have to put the synthetic textiles into the bag, close it and wash as usual. 

– Write to your policy representative or to your favorite brand demanding action. 

– Choose bulk shops and markets for plastic-free shopping and always bring your shopping bags to the supermarket. 

– Drive your car as little as you can. 

– Use alternative materials but keep in mind that natural fibres can have other sustainability issues. Conventional cotton production can be problematic because it requires a lot of chemical pesticides. So choose Organic cotton,  recycled cotton, organic hemp, organic linen, Tencel, and Kimonos whenever it is possible. 

As we have seen, micro plastics represent a very complex problem that need complex solutions but it is important to never give up: “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” 

 

 

 

 

About the Author:

A creative freelance writer from Italy, with a nerdy passion for sustainability, especially when it comes to fashion and beauty! I will always be a huge advocate of second-hand clothing, upcycling and DIY!

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