Since our blog post two years ago on Plastic Clothing Causes Microplastic Pollution, many studies have been done and scientific understanding is a little broader about microplastics that pollute the oceans.

To date, I have yet to find any article or documentary that puts this whole problem into perspective. Either we speak only about microplastics that are derived from the degradation of plastic debris (secondary microplastics). Or, the discussion is only about targeted sources of primary microplastics without any idea of its proportion compared to the rest. For example, microbeads in cosmetics.

 

A few years ago, there was a lot of discussion about plastic microbeads in cosmetics. Several petitions were presented to different governments around the world. As a result, a number of countries have banned the manufacture and import of any personal care products (toothpastes, exfoliants, cleansers, etc.) containing microbeads. On June 2, 2017, a new regulation was added to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act and plastic microbeads are now banned in Canada.

It’s a step in the right direction, but did you know that microbeads in cosmetics are the source of only 2% of all primary microplastics found in the ocean !! … not to mention the secondary microplastics.

This whole story of microbeads has nonetheless served to contribute to an important debate on mircoplastics. This is just the beginning of a long epic that leads us to become aware of the greatest environmental threat we never talk about.

It’s a complex subject that requires first and foremost a good explanation 🙂

 

Let’s start from the beginning …

 

A microplastic (will be refered as MP) can be defined as a small piece of plastic less than 5mm and a nanoplastic is a particle smaller than 0.1 micrometer.

 

Marine microplastic pollution

 

There are two categories:

1.Primary microplastics 
are pieces of plastic that are already small when they contaminate the ocean.

*Sources:

  • Synthetic Textiles: abrasion during laundry (35%)
  • Tyres: abrasion while driving (not counting natural rubber tires) (28%)
  • City Dust: weathering, abrasion and pouring (24%)
  • Road Markings: weathering and abrasion by vehicles (7%)
  • Marine Coatings: weathering and incidents during application, maintenance and disposal (3.7%)
  • Personal Care Products (microbeads): pouring during product use (2%)
  • Plastic Pellets: incidents during manufacturing, transport and recycling (0.3%)

 

*according Primary Microplastics in the Oceans: a Global Evaluation of Sources from the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature)

 

2.Secondary microplastics
are small pieces of plastic from the degradation (when in the ocean) of large pieces of plastic.

 

Sources:

  • All plastic waste found in the ocean (bottles, bags, straws, fishing nets, etc., etc., etc.) that break into smaller and smaller pieces over time.

 

 

About 1.5 million tonnes of primary MPs and 8 million tonnes of secondary MPs (total of all plastic waste that potentially become MPs over time) contaminate the oceans each year. These numbers are estimates, but it still gives a good idea.

We can not say that it does not affect us directly. Studies conducted on the St. Lawrence River place it among the most contaminated waterways in the world. And that’s not all…

 

Terrestrial microplastic pollution

 

As a bonus, it’s not only the water that’s contaminated. In February 2018, a German research based on several studies suggests that terrestrial MP pollution is 4 to 23 times (depending on the environment) higher than marine MP pollution !! Although there are not many studies on this subject, it is inevitable that soils are also contaminated. One of the main sources could be the sludge from wastewater treatment plants that’s spread (as fertilizer) on agricultural fields. A problem directly related to the washing of synthetic fibers garments. It’s a safe bet that there are also a lot of secondary MPs that come from the degradation of bigger plastic waste on land. After all, how many millions of tons of plastics are currently in landfills ?

 

Here’s the problem :

 

It will be very difficult, if not impossible, to separate these particles from the environment.

MPs tend to accumulate toxic agents (heavy metals, PCBs, DDT)

We find MPs in our food: sea salt, honey, sugar, beer, bottled water, etc.

There are MPs in animals: fish, birds, whales, turtles.

This pollution is spread all over the world, even in the most remote places.

Microplastics can degrade into nanoplastics.

In 2018, MPs were discovered in human stool for the first time.

I’m starting to believe there are MPs in you and me right now …

Above all, we don’t know the long-term impact of this contamination. For example, nanoplastics could spread in our blood system … but again, we do not know.

 

Solutions … ?

 

There are still no concrete solutions to this pollution. A robot that filters MPs in the ocean project is in the early stages of development and there may be other, yet unknown, solutions starting up. But it is possible for all to take action to prevent microplastic from spreading in the environment :

 

1. Single use plastics

 

Since secondary MPs represent the greatest threat (potentially 80% of all MPs), it is important to reduce the consumption of single-use plastics (which accounts for 40% of secondary PMs, thus potentially 32% of all microplastic pollution):

  • Bring your reusable bags to the grocery store
  • Invest in a glass or metal water bottle (thermos)
  • Avoid overpacking
  • Zero Waste (Bulk) Grocery
  • Regularly inquire about the types of plastics that are recycled in your area and avoid those that are not
  • Avoid straws and plastic utensils
  • Etc., etc., etc.

 


 

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2. Synthetic fiber textiles

 

It is especially this subject which is of interest for us. After all, we are a company that makes clothes. Primary MPs caused by the washing of synthetic fiber garments could account for only 7% of total MPs (35% of primary MPs. Primary MPs are about 20% of all MPs). Even so, that’s 665,000 tonnes / year of tiny fibers coming off our clothes. And this proportion will certainly be higher when there will be more studies on terrestrial MPs.

Since the very first study on MPs in 2011 by Mark Anthony Browne and his team, there has always been talks of synthetic fibers from textiles. They even tested cloths washing to determine that only one synthetic fiber garment could release more than 1900 microplastic fibers each wash.

Solution: obviously, avoid synthetic fibers (nylon, polyester, acrylic) and favor clothing made with natural biodegradable fibers (organic cotton, hemp, linen, viscose from bamboo, lyocell (tencel) eucalyptus). Knowing that synthetic fibers occupy 60% of the market today, it is not realistic to say that everyone can completely avoid them. Here are some solutions to reduce the contamination of micoplastic fibers during your washing:

1.Cora Ball (https://coraball.com/)
is a laundry ball that catches fibers during washing. It is easy to use, made of recycled and recyclable materials. It’s being made close to here in Vermont.

Check out this video

Buy online at Terra 20 (eco product retaillers in Ottawa).

I intend to buy one soon. There will certainly be a blog post about this in 2019.

2.GUPPYFRIEND washing bag (https://guppyfriend.com/en/)
is a bag that filters microplastic fibers of the clothes it contains. Made of 100% polyamide it can be recycled. Manufactured in Portugal for a German company.

Buy online at Pantagonia.ca

I intend to buy one soon. There will certainly be a blog post about this in 2019.


3.Filtrol 160
(https://www.septicsafe.com/washing-machine-filter)
connects to the water outlet of the washer. It filters synthetic fibers to prevent microplastic pollution and septic tank problems. No information on the country of origin, but it seems to me it is manufacture in the United States.

Buy online at Wexco Environmental

Maybe one day I’ll try that. It seems to me that it would be a nice tool to test the effectiveness of the Cora Ball and the GUPPYFRIEND bag.

Does this post contain good information?

Had you ever heard of microplastics before ?

Leave your comments !


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About the author Ugo Dutil: I grew up at the ecovillage “La Cite Ecologique” from 1 to 11. I decided to go back and live there when I was 25 years old. I like this way of life that allows us to prioritize human relationships over material possessions. I’ve been working with Respecterre since 2013. Minimalism and responsible consumption, especially in textiles, fascinate me.