Eating Fish? Then You’re Eating Plastic, Too

Synthetic fleece is something of a modern miracle. It keeps us warm and cozy, is easily cleaned and doesn’t even require we harm any animals to make it. Perfect, right? Well, every miracle comes with a price.

It turns out that every time we wash one fleece pullover or jacket, we’re sending about two grams of plastic microfibers out into our environment. Where those fibers end up from there is a bit concerning, because you’re probably eating them.

The University of California and clothing manufacturer Patagonia worked together in 2016 to estimate how much microfiber is entering our environment on a daily basis from our laundry habits. They published their findings in the the journal Environmental Science and Technology in September 2016.

School of fishes

Two grams weigh just a little more than a single paperclip. When we toss an item of synthetic fleece clothing into a washing machine, the agitation of the wash cycle shakes loose about two grams of fibers. Top load washers seem to release up to seven times more fibers than front loaders, for some reason.

At the end of the wash cycle, those fibers go spinning down the drain with the soapy water, where they travel to wastewater treatment plants. All along the way, these fibers are so small, there’s no filter that catches them. They end up flowing out into our water system and off into the environment.

Fish and shellfish eat them. Then we eat the fish and shellfish. The great circle of life means we are basically eating our own clothing, a few fibers at a time.

Little Fibers Cause a Great Big Problem

It might seem like this is a relatively minor problem, but it’s bigger than it appears. We’ve found synthetic microfibers all over the place — from waters of the arctic region to table salt used in China to fish caught off the shores of California.

One study tells us that microfibers make up a whopping 85 percent of the manmade debris we find on coastlines around the world. That’s a heck of a lot of teeny, tiny plastic fibers. It’s no wonder some researchers worry about how much of it we’re ingesting.

“Microfibers seem to be one of the most common plastic debris items in animals and environmental samples,” Chelsea Rochman, a University of Toronto, St. George ecologist and evolutionary biologist, told NPR. That means most creatures are eating or drinking those fibers.

“If you’re eating fish, you’re eating plastic,” Gregg Treinish, founder of the nonprofit group Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, told NPR. “There’s no proven causal relationship with health issues, but I don’t want to spend the next 50 years eating it and then learn I shouldn’t have been.”

Are we eating enough to make it a real threat to our health? That’s still an open question. Still, though — you’re eating plastic. Does that make you happy?

Colourful clothing in the wash

We do know that eating microfibers makes water fleas die in greater numbers. We also know crabs will eat less actual food if they’re ingesting microfibers too. There’s clearly an effect, but we don’t yet grasp fully what it is.

Is there much you can do on an individual level to ameliorate this problem? You can wash your fleece less often, for one thing. If it’s not truly dirty, wear it a few times before tossing it in the wash.

If you’re more enterprising, you can actually reduce the amount of fiber your own laundry sends our into the world. There’s a type of filter designed for use with washing machines that empty to septic systems. The filter catches non-biodegradable fibers, pet fur, sand and hair from the water that drains from your washing machine. Try it and you might be surprised at how often you need to clean it out.

No one’s saying we need to ban synthetic fleece. Unfortunately, though, our continued use means this problem will only grow. We need to be thinking about solutions.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

66 comments

Monica D
Monica D5 months ago

I say it. Such items should probably not be sold. Perhaps someone can begin a petition on this.

I like a comment below, re natural fibres.

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Marie W
Marie W5 months ago

Thank you for posting

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Melania P
Melania P6 months ago

Indeed.... Many studies show this, sharing as well.... Welcome to the plastic planet ;(

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heather g
heather g8 months ago

Virtually every person has several articles made with synthtic fleece. I didn't know the serious consequences on the ocean environment and wish this knowledge could become more widely known - especially manufacturers...

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Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiran8 months ago

we need to go back to cotton and wool.

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Marija M
Marija M8 months ago

shocking...

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Telica R
Telica R8 months ago

I sure do love fish, but what damage is being done to the fish?

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Ruth C
Ruth C8 months ago

Don't only think of yourselves, think about the life of the poor animals, they don't deserve abuse in anyway!

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Margie FOURIE
Margie FOURIE8 months ago

Terrible for us, but what about the fish? We are to blame for this on the fish.

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Leanne K
Leanne K8 months ago

We ought to be concerned the effect its having on the fish. Full stop. Not merely because people eat the fish.

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