Microfibres, the Ocean's Biggest Predator



Ask yourself, what do you think the biggest ocean predator is? Perhaps a killer whale? Maybe a great white shark? Well, what if I told you it's plastic? You are already probably aware of the plastic problem facing us, but I'm not just referring to them pesky plastic bottles and straws we hear so much about, I'm talking about the oceans hidden and silent killer: plastic microfibres.


Right now, there's around 51 trillion microplastics littering our oceans, with four billion plastic microfibres in just one square kilometre. And clothing is the culprit, and it's likely your own wardrobe is no exception.


What are microfibres?


Around 60% of fabrics used in our clothing contains plastic, yes that's 60%! You have probably heard of polyester, nylon, acrylic, and polyamide, right? These are the central cause of microfibre pollution, which is our ocean's invisible but deadly predator.


Every time we wash our clothes, we're shedding thousands of plastic microfibres into the water that will eventually end up in our oceans. But the waters are treated and purified right? No, not entirely. To put it simply, the 'micro' aspect of a microfibre really isn't an exaggeration. They're particles of plastic under just 5mm, making it super easy for them to pass through water systems, straight into our oceans unnoticed. And despite their small size, they're having a huge impact.


A study conducted by Friends of Earth predicted that every year in the UK, just through washing our clothing, we produce roughly 4,000 tonnes of plastic microfibre pollution. And around 1,600 tonnes is potentially ending up in our rivers and estuaries which eventually enters into the sea. Similarly, a further study by IUCN reported that in Europe and South Asia, around 54 plastic bags of microplastics are dumped, per person, per week.


This problem is only predicted to worsen as our usage dependency and increased demand on the fashion industry accelerates. With predictions stating that if we continue to follow the current trend, between 2015 and 2050, we could reach excess of 22 million tonnes of microfibers in our oceans, which is a very troubling figure that should never be ignored.


Should we be concerned?


Scientists around the world are working hard to understand the effects of the human consumption of sea food and water containing microplastics, yet its effect on our health is still unclear. However, the worrying consequences can be somewhat observed in our marine life.


Our oceans continue to be infiltrated by plastic, of which 236,000 are thought to be ingestible microplastics that marine life often mistaken for food. Yet, when marine animals consume these plastic microfibres, they are known to have various effects. They block digestive tracts making animals feel full when in reality they're starving to death. They also change feeding patterns and behaviours, which too then impacts their overall reproduction.


For some aquatic animals this may to illness and death, but for others they may actually end up on our dinner plate. Scientists found that around 114 aquatic species contain microplastics and around half of these will be potentially consumed by humans. As a result, we are actually thought to consume around five grams of plastic each week. Although we don't quite know its effects, it's nonetheless pretty unsettling after observing the possible outcomes for our marine life.


So, what can we do about it?


Although the total eradication of plastic use in the fashion industry would be the best alternative to reduce microfibres in our oceans, that may be years away. So in the meantime, here’s seven things you can do to play your part in the reduction of plastic microfibres in our oceans.

  • Buy smart. Be thoughtful about your clothing purchases, buy less clothing when you can and when you do purchase items, try to opt for more natural fibres like cotton, linen, silk, and wool

  • Shop second hand. Why not pop to your local charity shop, or utilise online second-hand apps such as Depop and Vinted? Not only does this save you some cash but also reduces your environmental impact

  • Wash less. Inevitably the more you wash your clothes the increased opportunity there is to enable microfibres to shed. It is also beneficial to wash clothing on a cool temperature, as ‘hot washes’ enable microfibres to break away more easily

  • Fill your washing machine. Unfilled machines means your clothing has more room to shift around, making it increasingly likely for microfibres to break off, so be sure to fill em' up!

  • Purchase a coraball. This collects the microfibres that come off our clothing whilst washing, creating a visible ball of fuzz. This makes it easier to dispose of the microfibres that could have entered our oceans

  • Consider a wash bag. On average 86% fewer fibres of synthetic clothing break when washed with the washing bag and these are readily available to purchase online, such as the Guppyfriend washing bag

  • Spread the word. Tell others about microfibre pollution and its effects, as greater public awareness can cause real change