Every time you wash your clothes, you are adding to a mountain of plastic fluff that is polluting the environment

Scientists estimate 5.6 million tonnes of microfibres from synthetic fabrics have entered the environment since the 1950s

Every time we wash our clothes, microfibres are released into the environment. Unsplash 
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Over the past few years, there has been an increasing awareness on the impact microplastics have on oceans and the environment. But they are not the only tiny particles that are having a devastating environmental effect.

As we wash our clothes, tiny fibres from synthetic fabrics are released and leaked into the environment. And scientists have now revealed just how much of this ‘fluff’  has contaminated land, oceans and rivers around the world.

Since the popularisation of fabrics like nylon and polyester in the 1950s, around 5.6 million tonnes of fibres have been released into the environment, scientists in the US estimate – the equivalent of seven billion fleece jackets.

Around 2.9 million tonnes of these fibres – less than 5mm in length - have made their way into the world’s oceans.

However, the problem with this fluff is that it is having an increasing impact on land. According to the team at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which carried out the study, the number of fibres remaining on land has overtaken those being leaked into oceans thanks to advances in wastewater treatment works, which have made plants extremely good at catching the particles.

But once it has been captured, this fluff is being applied to cropland alongside biosolid sludge, or simply being buried in landfills.

Microfibres from synthetic fabrics are ending up in landfill. Unsplash
Microfibres from synthetic fabrics are ending up in landfill. Unsplash

The researchers say their findings, published in the journal Plos One, indicate yearly microfibre emissions to landfill and other terrestrial environments exceeding 167,000 metric tonnes each year.

The true numbers are, however, extremely difficult for researchers to calculate. The team at USCB looked at data on how plastic is made, consumed, and then shed around the world. They also needed to look at the impact of both machine and hand washing, and estimate the number of people who do each and at what frequency, as well as looking at the effect different detergents can have on the shedding of microfibres.

The results estimated that, between 1950 and 2016, 5.6 million tonnes of this fluff was released from clothes washed, with around half of these emissions occurring in the past 10 years. This is, in part, down to the rise in fast fashion and our growing collection of clothes. In 1990, researchers say the global average stock of garments per head was 8kg. By 2016, it was 26kg per capita.

With emissions growing by 12.9 per cent each year, researchers say more needs to be done to reduce plastic fibre pollution.

"Large-scale removal of microfibres from the environment is unlikely to be technically feasible or economically viable, so the focus needs to be on emission prevention," the study’s lead author Jenna Gavigan said.

"Since wastewater treatment plants don't necessarily reduce emissions to the environment, our focus needs to be on reducing emissions before they enter the wastewater stream."