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Report: Our Oceans Are Drowning in Pollution From Synthetics

Synthetic fabrics, friction and washing machines are colluding to undermine the environment.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) released a report about the presence of microfibers in the Earth’s oceans. The report, “Primary Microplastics in the Oceans: a Global Evaluation of Sources,” indicated that tiny plastic particles from consumer products, including synthetic clothing, could contribute up to 30 percent of global ocean pollution and in many developing countries, are destroying marine life habitats.

“This report is a real eye-opener, showing that plastic waste is not all there is to ocean plastics. Our daily activities, such as washing clothes and driving, significantly contribute to the pollution choking our oceans, with potentially disastrous effects on the rich diversity of life within them, and on human health,” IUCN director general Inger Andersen said. “These findings indicate that we must look far beyond waste management if we are to address ocean pollution in its entirety.”

Microplastics are divided into two categories—primary microplastics and secondary microplastics. Primary microplastics take the form of small particulates and are released directly into the environment. Secondary microplastics derive from the degradation of larger plastic items that were previously exposed to marine environments.

What makes microplastics dangerous is that they are invisible and could have a long-term effect on oceans and human health. The report said between 15 percent and 31 percent of the estimated 9.5 million tonnes of plastic released into oceans annually could be primary plastics, and nearly two-thirds of primary plastics come from washing synthetic garments. Furthermore, household activities are responsible for almost 75 percent of the global releases of microplastics to oceans.

Synthetic textiles are one of the main sources of primary microplastic pollution. The world contributes 588,000 kilotons of microplastics annually by washing synthetic textiles in households and industrial laundries. Primary microplastics are created through the abrasion and shedding of fibers during synthetic textile washing. These fibers are then transported in sewage water and could potentially end up in oceans.

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Today, 62.7 percent of synthetic fibers are consumed in developing economies. In these economies, consumers buy more synthetic textiles (68 percent) over those in developed economies (48.2 percent). On a global scale, all regions contribute significantly to the distribution of microplastics in oceans. The largest regional releases come from India and Southeast Asia (18.3 percent), along with North America (17.2 percent).

The report included five key suggestions to minimize microplastic releases from synthetic textiles. The apparel industry could possibly design textiles to reduce the shedding of fibers. Textiles could be pre-washed to reduce heavy loads in product manufacturing and companies can install filtering devices on washing machines. For consumers, the report suggests changing individual habits, including purchasing apparel with recycled fiber origins.

By understanding the harmful effects of microplastics, the apparel industry can combat water pollution and foster a more circular economy in the future.