The unfortunate truth of today is that people are polluting the Earth’s oceans at unparalleled rates. While littering and plastic straws are surely to blame, there’s another unlikely culprit: our clothing. Here’s how and why this is such a problem.

Synthetics Are Everywhere

A lot of our clothes today are made from plastics. Synthetic fibers such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic are all examples of these materials. What’s even more shocking, is that these plastic fibers make up roughly 60 percent of the material used to manufacture clothes across the entire world.

The reason why these fibers are so popular is understandable. Not only are they extremely cheap, but they’re versatile too. Clothing made from synthetic fibers are normally more stretchy and breathable than say cotton or wool. Although convenient, a major problem with synthetics is what happens when they’re being washed.

What Comes Off In The Wash

Tiny plastic microfibers from all synthetic clothing fall off. This happens when we are merely wearing the clothes, and even when we wash them. And where do you think those microfibers end up? That’s right, in our oceans.

This is because the microfibers are so small that washing machine filters are unable to catch them. After the microfibers end up passing through our sewage systems, the wastewater is then dumped into rivers and other bodies of water, carrying massive amounts of plastic clothing fibers along with it.

“We found that in a typical wash, 700,000 fibers could come off,” said Imogen Napper, a marine scientist at the University of Plymouth. Napper co-authored a study in 2016 which focused on the microfibers that are shed from synthetic clothing.

“A large proportion will get caught by the sewage treatment works, [but] even that small proportion that does fall through is going to accumulate . . . There’s no effective way to remove them.” Napper continued. The microfiber issue has gotten so bad that its estimated roughly 85% of human-made debris on shorelines worldwide is made up from these tiny synthetic materials.

What’s more, small fish such as plankton tend to accidentally ingest these microfibers. Then, other fish eat the plankton and the microfibers move up the food chain. It’s become such a problem that nearly a quarter of the seafood sold in fish markets in California contained plastic and fibrous material in their gut.

How Do We Fix This?

Such a monumental problem doesn’t come with an easy fix, unfortunately. But there are still steps we can take to lessen the damage of synthetic fibers on our oceans.

“Washing machines need to be designed to reduce emissions of fibers to the environment; at the moment they are not,” said Mark Browne, an environmental scientist at the University College Dublin.

While we await more efficient washing machines, there are still small steps individuals can take to reduce the impact of microfiber pollution. These include buying less synthetic clothing as well as washing our clothes only when necessary.

While these efforts may seem small, it’s the least we can do to help save our oceans from microfiber pollution.