Scientists at Carleton University in Canada have found that microfibers, a kind of plastic found in modern apparel like yoga pants and fleece-jackets, are contaminating rivers, streams and oceans.
When these and other similar kinds of garments are washed, hundreds of thousands of microfibers are flushed into the wastewater system, eventually reaching oceans and rivers.
This has serious repercussions on aquatic life as ingesting microfibers makes all kinds of marine life, everything from fish to crabs, feel full but provides no nutrition. The animals that eat them eventually starve to death.
“What really surprised us is that we found plastic particles in every single water and sediment sample we took, so the plastic was really prevalent in the river system.” said Jesse Vermaire, assistant professor of environmental science and geography at Carleton. “As much as 95 per cent of the plastic in the water samples collected by Vermaire and the Ottawa Riverkeepers was made up of microfibers. Around five per cent of the plastic was made up of micobeads.”
Microbeads are another kind of synthetic plastic threatening aquatic ecosystems. Governments have sought to ban the use of mircrobeads in products like toothpaste, facial scrubs and body washes. Many companies have taken them out of their products by choice in order to help the environment.
As for microfibers, a ban or return to the drawing board for clothing companies may be in store; reformulating the materials that make it into our clothes may be the only way to keep microfibers out of the fish food chain for good.
Scientists believe the problem has already started to impact seafood consumed by humans. The microfibers, as they sit in a fish’s digestive tract, begin to bioaccumulate leading to toxins building up in the fish’s tissue.
How pervasive is the problem? A 2011 study found that debris on 85% of shorelines around the world were made up of microfibers. Plastic Soup, an ocean advocacy group, says that 75% of all ocean debris is plastic or polystyrene.
Some studies have shown enormous impact on the fish that may one day end up on your plate. One study found that that 36% of fish caught in the English Channel had plastic in their stomachs. Another found 83% of crayfish studied in Norway contained plastic fibres. One study found fulmars, aquatic birds, had plastic in their stomachs at a rate of almost 100% of those examined.
Solutions are being proposed that vary from coating clothes that use synthetic plastics with an anti-shed layer to introducing waterless washing machines that clean clothes with pressurized carbon-dioxide. A filter on conventional washing machines, or a ball that attracts shed microfibers, have also been proposed. So far, industry has been slow to move in instituting reforms.
Gregg Treinish, founder and executive director of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, says that the studies he’s read have switched him off of seafood. “I don’t want to have eaten fish for 50 years and then say, ‘Oh, whoops’,” Treinish said in an interview with The Guardian.
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