Diving into microfibres

Freediving in 2018 evokes the image of transcendent experience, an ephemeral dream and an unparalleled freedom. But free diving in 2050 might look radically different. That’s because it’s estimated that in the next few decades, we will have more plastic in the ocean than we do fish.

Our addiction to plastic is nothing new, and our recent efforts to make up for it has only started to scratch the surface. Most people will tell you they’ve substituted the vending machine water bottle for a reusable one, and replaced their flimsy supermarket carrier bag with a cotton tote. What we might consider obvious plastic threats to our environment have started to lose their popularity – or at least have provided considerable cause for giving someone the stink eye for showing up to dinner with plastic cutlery.

But the gravity of the situation has extended far beyond the most common perpetrators. Though plastic packaging does represent the largest part of our plastic problem, we’ve been overlooking a small but ruthless criminal; microplastics. These minuscule plastic particles (less than five millimetres in length and about the size of a sesame seed) that come into our lives in the form of plastic beads in personal care products like cleansers, exfoliants and toothpastes,also happen to be found in synthetic microfibres.

So, what does that mean?

Without getting too technical, little bits of plastic detach from our synthetic fibre clothing like polyester, nylon, rayon and elastane (also known as Spandex or Lycra). All these fibres are essentially made out of plastic that happens to detach itself when we wash clothes in the washing machine. According to a study done in 2014, ‘Microplastic, in the form of fibres, was up to four orders of magnitude more abundant (per unit volume) in deep-sea sediments from the Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean than in contaminated sea-surface waters.’ The fish eat these microplastics by accident, thinking they might be plankton, sea turtles and birds also get fooled into swallowing them. At this point, it’s not far fetched to say that these bits of plastic probably end up in our own digestive tracks.

What can we do about it?

Spending a little extra money on a good quality garments, especially if it’s made with synthetic fibres like polyester or nylon is a great first step. Cheaper, lower quality synthetics actually loose more microfibres in its lifetime. At Bluenery, we’ve made sure to only use strong recycled polyester, and we’re committed to finding new and better ways to further reduce the impact our materials have on the planet. Good quality also means longer lifecycle, one of our all time favourite ways of reducing our collective footprint.

The washing of your clothing is one of the biggest perpetrators of microfibres shedding into the ocean. Despite what your mother might have taught you, washing your clothing less often and only when totally necessary is key. Annoying stains can often be washed out by cleaning the area specifically, without needing to throw the entire garment in the machine. You’ll also be saving water that way! Naturally, washing on a gentler cycler in your machine also means less particles falling off your garments. Though little research is more needed in that area, it’s worth a try!

We’ve also seen some incredible innovations emerge in tackling the microfibre crisis including the Cora Ball, catching all the dangerous particles in your washing machine. For starters, using a simple laundry mesh bag to wash your polyester garments can eliminate some of the fibres from entering your drain and flowing into the waterways.

Lastly, keeping an eye out for natural fibres like cotton (which doesn’t emit any microfibres) is equally as important. This can be tricky for activewear as natural fibres typically have very little stretch to them. We’ve tried to find a happy medium with our organic cotton products, and those containing some recycled polyester content. Finding the right balance between low impact fabrics and keeping a small ecological footprint during the lifecycle of that product can be a challenge, one that we continue to explore.

There’s so many different parts of this microfibre puzzle, and there are certainly knowledge gaps on this issue. Generally, we’re still unclear as to how water temperature, use of detergent and styles of washing machines affect the release of microfibres into the oceans. There’s also a lack of information a to how sewage treatment systems work when it comes to our clothing. But what we do know for sure is that real solutions will only come from all of us, together.

Laura François

Social impact designer, Laura is working closely with Bluenery to give our family some strong environment awareness.