New research from the University of Plymouth examines the release of plastic microfibres into the environment. One of its researchers, Dr Imogen Napper, discusses how these tiny particles are crossing a planetary boundary and finding their way everywhere, including into our bodies…
Have you ever been sitting in a room, looking towards a window while a ray of sunlight shone through it, and noticed tiny little flecks hovering in the air? Like dust? A large majority of these are plastic fibres and we are breathing them in, before they head off into our rivers, our soil, anywhere they like. Air is a plastic fibre’s highway, the perfect medium for limitless travel.
Plastic has only been around for about 100 years, but the amount of change we’ve seen in that time is unprecedented. As a scientist, I’ve spent my working life analysing plastic pollution, in particular, its impact on our rivers and seas. It’s also an incredibly useful material that has revolutionised the way we live. It saves lives, it makes things cheaper and therefore more democratic. During Covid, it gave all of us masks, it gave us gloves, test kits. But the pace of innovation has sometimes surpassed our existing waste management systems and the ability to understand the full impact of plastic and its associated chemicals on our environment.
Most plastics are derived from fossil fuel-based chemicals and are of particular concern when it comes to chemical pollution – one of the nine planetary boundaries, the point at which human-made changes to our Planet push it outside the stable environment. Last year, a study from the Stockholm Resilience Centre concluded that chemical pollution had crossed a planetary boundary. But we still know relatively little about the impacts of these human-driven novel entities. So it’s our responsibility to dig much deeper, and align our understanding with the impacts of the very things we’ve created.
Plastic’s in the air
It turns out that those little plastic flecks flying in the air of the light-drenched room may largely be shed by the clothes we wear, a fact I hadn’t considered until relatively recently. It really hit home when I was involved in the National Geographic Mount Everest expedition in 2019. Although I didn’t go on the expedition, my boss had said to me, “how would you feel about getting some snow samples from Everest to analyse the plastic content”, and I thought she was joking. I never imagined we would find anything. It’s Everest! So I was really surprised that in every single snow sample we tested, there was plastic. And it correlated to where people were. At Everest base camp, for example, we found 80 microplastics per litre of snow. I was expecting zero. Even towards the summit, the figure was 10 per litre.
I was so shocked that I thought something had gone wrong with our tests. Or maybe my samples had been contaminated. But all the replicates were showing exactly the same thing. Where was it coming from? Aside from climbing ropes, the other main synthetics found in Everest was clothing. And roughly 60% of all the clothes we wear are made from plastic fibres.
Late last year, we published another paper, this time comparing the proportion of plastic coming out of wastewater treatment plants to plastic in the atmosphere. We often hear how sewage treatment plants are the main way in which plastic fibres are getting into the environment, into our rivers, seas and soil. But from this study, we showed that the biggest proportion is coming from atmospheric plastic – plastic in the air. At least in sewage treatment plants, waste can potentially be collected and managed. With atmospheric plastics, we found, on average, 120 microplastics per metre squared in urban environments. So if you think about a whole city, that’s a huge amount of plastic being released into the air, travelling hundreds of kilometres because they’re so light, their destination unknown. We’re walking through clouds of plastics every day, inhaling all the time. And we’re only just starting to understand that, let alone its implications. Last year, for example, microplastics were found in human blood for the first time.
Facts, not opinion
I think more evidence and truth will allow us to fight for a healthier Planet. I remember when I wrote my first research paper – the writing style was a bit like an environmental activist. My supervisor read it and said, “you can have your opinions but not in a research paper – here you give evidence and suggestions.” He was right.
The best thing we can do is act on facts – not opinion. So we need to ensure that these facts don’t remain in research papers; they need to be amplified, their implications shouted about so that all sectors of society – whether that’s individuals, academics, industry – can use the evidence and make the relevant changes. I’m really keen on scientists using their voice and presenting the facts to everyone, who then join in the discussion, who put forward ideas and solutions. It’s a team effort.
You can do that through work, through art, through conversations. But you don’t need to be perfect; none of us are. We don’t need a handful of perfect individuals; we need an army of people trying their best.
We are impact
In 2015, we found that there were three million plastic microbeads in one bottle of facial scrub. That small piece of research influenced international legislation to ban microbeads in these products. But consumer power also played its part. As people became aware of the findings, they started to make different choices and opted for scrubs free of microbeads. By doing so, each person could have prevented three million particles from entering our oceans. Companies listened, voluntarily removing these products from the shelves, even before the legislation came in.
When comparing the proportion of plastic coming out of wastewater treatment plants to plastic in the atmosphere, we found that acrylic emits more microfibres than other clothing materials at 45%, followed by polyester (34%) and nylon (12%). This comes down to factors such as polymer type, fabric structure, type of yarn, textile construction and garment design. In order to inform policy and industry, focus should be placed on better understanding what permutations of textile design give rise to the lowest rate of fibre shedding. Changes in fabric design will likely help reduce shedding during all use phases: wearing, washing and tumble drying.
And similar to the microbeads example, as consumers, we have an incredibly powerful voice to help drive change in this area. So let’s keep using it:
Wash your clothes less frequently; do full loads; invest in a washing machine filter, if you can.