Despite the Barbie mania we witnessed this summer, plastic is hardly fantastic. Take that one step further, and we say neither are microplastics.
These microscopic particles have literally been around for decades, but it took reaching the 21st century to become aware of their existence - and what they mean for ours. When we talk about a better way of making, buying, and using clothes, it’s a problem that’s impossible to ignore.
Propelled by the waves of fast fashion, microplastics are a deeply-rooted choice that needs to change.
Read on to better understand what they are and we’ll give you some practical tips on how to avoid them.
What are they
Picture a grain of rice. Then shrink it down to a fraction of that size, and you’ve got something close to the dimensions of microplastics. Despite their smallness, these tiny particles are a pressing concern.
They take shape through various processes. The most common route is the gradual breakdown of larger plastic items over time. Like a plastic bottle left out in the sun or thrown out into the open, only to be battered by nature. Eventually, it breaks down into smaller fragments. It’s these small bits that become microplastics, and they can persist in the environment for a long time after.
We should mention that microplastics don't come in just one form. They can manifest in different ways, and the two main ones are microfibers and microbeads.
Microfibers are the tiniest troublemakers. They’re the minuscule threads of synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon. When you wash your fleece jacket or stretchy yoga leggings, these microfibers get washed down the drain, later finding their way into rivers and oceans.
Microbeads are even smaller, solid plastic spheres often found in beauty and personal care products. They’re abrasive (exfoliating) but also help prolong shelf-life.
Where do they come from
Microplastics, specifically marine microplastics, aren’t a new phenomenon. Scientists first reported them way back in the 1970s. However, it wasn't until 2004 that the term "microplastics" was officially coined.
Here are the main channels through which microplastics find their way through the fashion industry:
- Synthetic fabrics - Materials like polyester, nylon, and acrylic are derived from petrochemicals, making them inherently plastic. When you wear and wash garments made from these, microfibers break free and are released into the environment through your washing machine's wastewater.
- Careless washing - Yes, we’re talking about the way we care for our clothes. Aggressive washing, using harsh detergents, and high-speed spinning can cause more microfibers to detach from synthetic textiles. Ultimately, they end up in rivers and oceans. At SANVT, we’ve prepared several care guides so that your pieces last a lifetime.
- Accessories and trims - Microplastics can also be found in faux fur or leather, which are often made from synthetics. Items like plastic buttons, zippers, and other synthetic components also contribute to microplastic pollution when they degrade.
What they’re doing to the planet
In the context of sustainable fashion, microplastics are a reminder that our clothing preferences can have far-reaching consequences.
In terms of environmental impact,
- They damage marine ecosystems: Microplastics infiltrate Earth’s waterways, posing a serious threat to all marine life. Sea animals sadly often mistake them for food, leading to ingestion. Beyond that, the problem threatens the entire marine food pyramid. In 2022, the Ocean Literacy Portal published an estimate of 50-75 trillion pieces of plastic and microplastics in the ocean. As a result, 90% of assessed species are negatively affected.
- They create pollution everywhere: Nope. Microplastics aren’t confined to aquatic habitats. They can also accumulate on land, affecting soil quality and agricultural produce, making their way into the human food chain.
- They create pollution that lasts: Microplastics take years to decompose (anywhere from 20 to 500 to be exact), persisting in the environment long after their initial release. This makes them a long-lasting and pervasive threat.
What they’re doing to humans
As if planetal harm wasn’t enough, microplastics are affecting our health, too.
- Food contamination: As microplastics enter the oceans and are consumed by marine life, they eventually make their way into our seafood. We can unknowingly ingest microplastics when we eat fish and shellfish, potentially exposing ourselves to plastic's harmful substances.
- Airborne exposure: Recent studies have shown that microplastics are also present in the very air that we breathe, raising concerns about respiratory and overall health.
- Chemical risks: Microplastics can absorb and transport harmful chemicals. When these plastics are ingested or inhaled, these chemicals enter our bodies, posing only more risks.
What fashion is doing to solve this
Brands and other businesses have already begun to tackle microplastic pollution.
Some, like us, only work with natural and/or biodegradable-certified materials. Then there are companies or non-profits, like SEAQUAL INITIATIVE, getting into the nitty gritty. They retrieve ocean plastic waste and recycle them, all the while providing livelihood for the affected local communities.
What you can do to avoid them
But it’s also up to you, the people, to practice some better habits.
Here are seven things you can do to avoid microplastics in your everyday:
- Go natural: When shopping, prioritize eco-friendly fabrics like organic cotton, hemp, or Tencel.
- Opt for quality over quantity: Invest in well-made, durable clothing. You’ll need to replace them less frequently.
- Use a Guppyfriend bag: Consider using a Guppyfriend bag or a similar microfiber-catching laundry bag when washing your synthetic clothing.
- Wash with cold water: Washing with cold water can reduce the release of microfibers, as hot water can worsen the shedding of plastic particles.
- Give your dryer a break: Line drying not only conserves energy but also reduces the friction that leads to microfiber shedding.
- Support sustainable brands: Choose to buy from labels that prioritize sustainability, the environment, and ethics.
- Learn: Stay informed about the topic and share what you know with those around you. It’s important to raise awareness and encourage collective efforts.
By understanding microplastics and taking steps to reduce their presence in our lives, we not only protect Mother Nature but also embrace a style that reflects our hope for a cleaner planet.
At SANVT, we're dedicated to providing better-made sustainable essentials. Our collections are designed to minimize microplastic pollution as well as your overall footprint.
Click here if you’d like to learn more about the rest of our sustainability initiatives.