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The Waterman’s Corner: Microfibers are becoming a environmental problem

By Staff | May 3, 2017

Microbeads. Microplastics. Have you heard of them? Microbeads are manufactured plastic particles less than 5mm in size and in 2015 the federal government banned them from cosmetics and personal care products (toothpaste, face wash) because of the ease at which these beads were making their way into our waterways and oceans. Microplastics are similar in size but have broken away from larger plastics such as, bags, buckets, and other plastic products. It is important to note that plastics do not biodegrade; they physically break down into smaller and smaller pieces. We’ve known of the problems that these tiny plastics create for a few years now and will revisit this topic; however, today’s article is about microfibers. Another type of microscopic plastic becoming an ironically huge problem in our oceans and food chains.

Rick Bartleson, with SCCF Marine Laboratory, and his colleagues have been collecting and analyzing water samples throughout the Pine Island Sound for years studying phytoplankton (microscopic marine plants) to better understand red tide. I sat down with Rick to look at samples they collected last week because he had mentioned finding microfibers. I entered their lab and saw nineteen 17oz brown bottles full of water collected from around the islands. He took one and deposited a few water droplets onto a side and slid it under the microscope. In less than a minute he found a microfiber. I was shocked that we found one so fast but this was common for Rick.

Where are these microfibers coming from? They originate from synthetic fabrics containing polyester and nylon and are released when washed. All of these materials are petroleum-based plastics. Each time you wash them, fibers come off which is obvious when we clean out the lint tray from our dryers but when in the washer, these fibers don’t get collected by a screen. Instead they flow to water treatment facilities and to our rivers eventually reaching the ocean. A study done by UCSB and Patagonia found that the types of clothes releasing the most fibers are yoga pants, fleece, and sweat-wicking clothes. After this study, Patagonia committed to fund more research and making this information available to consumers.

The University of Florida conducted a study throughout Florida to measure the extent of microbead distribution. The study collected 712 samples from 256 sites and they found that 89% of the samples contained plastic but microbeads were not the most abundant; 82% of the plastics discovered were microfibers.

Other research in the Gulf of Mexico have studied juvenile fishes (filefish, sergeant major, triple tail, Bermuda chub) and zooplankton (food of juvenile fishes) and found microfibers in their stomach contents. These are either fish that humans consume directly, or are eaten by species consumed by humans.

This problem is extensive and widespread, but there are ways we can help. A company, Guppy Friends, has designed a mesh bag to wash clothes in that traps microfibers. After the wash you just clean out the fibers in the bag and put it directly into the trash. Another idea from the Rozalia Project has designed a microfiber-catching laundry ball that you can also just toss into the washer. These products are still being developed but we will inform you when they become available. Until new technology is available, we can strive to be responsible, selective consumers by wearing more natural fabrics and steering clear of synthetic ones.