We already know to bring our own bags to the grocery store, to refuse the straw in our favorite drinks and that reducing the prevalence of these kinds of items will lessen the amount of trash that ends up in landfills, or floating in the sea.
What people are rarely aware of though, is that our clothing creates a massive amount of microplastics. A 2011 study published by Environmental Science & Technology found that microfibers account for 85% of human-made debris on shorelines around the world. So the sand on your favorite beach is quite literally part plastic.
What are microplastics?
Your (synthetic) Clothing Is Spewing Toxins Into the Environment
The big difference is that natural, plant based clothing sheds natural microfibers that will be degraded, digested and disappear into the environment very quickly; as opposed to synthetic microfibers. Synthetic microfibers will remain in the environment and float around for ages.
It has been estimated that microfiber emissions could grow by over 50 percent in the next decade, as the business of synthetic textiles continues to boom. These fabrics not only release microfibers, but they also contain Bisphenol A. BPA is a chemical compound commonly used in the manufacturing of synthetic fabrics use in yoga clothes, fleece and swimsuits. (More on BPA's effects later.)
Tiny plastic particles enter our bodies from the air we breath, the food we eat and the things we drink. So the question is, how exactly do they get into our air, water and food? Well, just like the Earth's ecosystems, they are all linked in one way or another...
When microplastics are released into the environment from our laundry, they travel from our washing machines, to either local lakes and streams or to wastewater treatment facilities.
Water treatment facilities provide both agricultural use water and tap water. Unfortunately, they do not currently have the technology to filter out microplastic particles, and that ensures they are widely distributed throughout the environment. Which means both fresh and processed water sources include these microplastic particles.
According to a study published in September 2017, 83% of tap water samples tested contain plastic fibers. This results in billions of people drinking plastic polluted water. Bottled water is no better, as most bottled water is sourced from municipal tap water supplies, as is the water used to make our beer, soft drinks, etc. Thus making it virtually certain that we are all ingesting microplastics, no matter what we drink.
Farms that grow our fruits and vegetables are using this microplastic filled water to irrigate crops. This adds microplastics to our produce, to our soil and ultimately arrives in our ground water, this same process can release microplastics into the air.
Microplastics also arrive on farms from processed sewage sludge, often used as fertilizer. One 2016 paper calculated that by doing so, North Americans could be loading their fields with up to 330,000 tons of microplastics each year. Due to this process, fruits and vegetables uptake and absorb plastics and their associated toxic chemicals. Then, when we ingest the produce, we consume these very same plastics and toxins. For best results, grow your own, or buy organic produce that is not grown with pesticides. Sludgy microplastics from irrigating farms are not just staying on those fields. When soils dry out, winds scour the dirt and blow microfibers into the sky and the air, more on that in a minute...
Microplastics are also ingested by wildlife, killing some outright. Still, others live with this plastic in their bodies until they are eaten by another animal. This leads to a phenomenon called "bioaccumulation." Each time an animal eats another animal, they have a bioaccumulation of all the plastic particles both animals have eaten. This continues and increases at each stage of the food web cycle. This process brings microplastics to our plates. In both fresh sea food and canned fish, as well as in the meat of land animals, like cows and chicken.
Additionally, new research from National Geographic found microplastics in 90 percent of table salt brands sampled worldwide. Table salt is typically mined from underground deposits, whereas sea salt is produced by evaporating seawater. Both of these sources are contaminated with microplastics. It might be best to only use Himalayan salt or Redmond salt, because they come from ancient, unpolluted seabeds.
Why is this important?
Microplastics and Human Health
The big question is what is happening in our bodies? According to the Center for International Environmental Law, microplastics that are ingested, eaten or inhaled can lead to a host of health problems.
Microplastic pollution has recently been detected in human blood and tissue for the first time. Scientists found tiny particles in almost 80% of the people tested. These may become lodged in organs, rather than simply passing through the body and being expelled, as was once assumed.
The chemical BPA found in synthetic clothing is a known carcinogen and hormone disruptor that has been linked with various types cancer.
Detectable levels of BPA have been found in the urine of 93% of all adults tested in the U.S. This level of accumulation causes adverse health effects including (but not limited to) breast and prostrate cancer, metabolism changes and obesity, developmental and neurobehavioral problems, as well as infertility and reproductive abnormalities.
The US Environmental Protection Agency is concerned about BPA because it is a systemic toxicant that has been found in mother's breast milk and infant urine samples. In December, microplastics were revealed to even be evident in the placentas of pregnant women.
In a surprising study published in March, not only did fish exposed to microplastics reproduce less, but their offspring (who were not directly exposed to plastic particles) also had fewer young. This suggests that the effects can linger into subsequent generations. The implications are startling.
What Can We Do About Microplastics?
By now, you might be wondering, "What can I do about microplastics?" The best way to protect yourself, your loved ones and the environment, is by limiting the plastic you put into the world.
One of the most simple things you can do is invest in a washing bag that catches some of those fibers before they enter the waterways. You can also install a microplastic filter to your dryer to catch the fibers before they get released into the air. When you do wash your clothing, wash using the cold setting. According to the Plastic Pollution Coalition, this causes less microfiber shedding than hot water.
As much as microplastic filters are great, the best way to help fight the problem of microplastics is by voting with your dollars. First and foremost, avoid synthetics and buy only toxic-free clothing. Support companies that use natural and plant based fabrics such as cotton, hemp, linen, silk and wool. You can also choose to support brands that are dedicated to sustainability, such as shipping in plastic free packaging or planting trees. We here at Lotus Tribe Clothing employ all of these practices and are proud of our eco commitment.
- Buy natural fiber fabric clothing.
- Wash your clothing in cold water and wash less often.
- Hang dry your laundry in natural, bacteria fighting sunshine.
- Add filters to your washer and dryer to catch microfibers before they enter the environment.
- Grow your own organic food.
We live in a world full of microplastic pollution. Some environmentalists warn that the threat of plastic pollution now “rivals climate change.” The effects of micro plastics on the health of both humans and wildlife, as well as the cumulative effects on the planet, show that we all need to be concerned about this kind of pollution.
It may seem like a daunting task, but perhaps less so when considering the changes we’ve seen with larger, single-use plastics. We, as a society, have woken up to these harmful impacts. As such, consumers, retailers, and governments have taken action— replacing single-use plastics with reusable options, creating items using recycled materials and instituting bag bans in cities and countries around the globe.
Now, we need to see that same level of attention on microfibers from fashion. By educating yourself on the issue and using your wallet to speak your mind, you can push for change and help make that happen.
What Does Lotus Tribe Do About Microplastics?
To help fight microplastics, Lotus Tribe uses natural plant based fabrics for all of our yoga wear. These are not only better for the environment, but feel better and allow your skin to breathe. We ship our orders in only plastic free packaging. Plus we plant a tree for every item we sell to offset our carbon footprint and combat climate change.
Full disclosure: Our Yoga Fashions are made of 90% cotton with 10% spandex fabric. So even though its not 100% natural fiber, it is 90% better than traditionally made yoga wear. We know you there must be some stretch in your yoga clothes, so we aim to offer the best solution.
You can shop with us confidently knowing that not only are our products earth friendly, but so is every aspect of our business. For more thoughts on shopping choices, check out our blog on Conscious Consumerism.