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Washing clothing pollutes oceans with billions of microplastics

Washing synthetic clothes—such as nylon, polyester, and acrylic—is polluting the oceans with billions of microplastics: plastics that measure less than one millimeter. It may sound innocuous, but research has shown that these microplastics are accumulating in marine species with unknown health impacts, both on the pollution-eating species and the humans who consume them.

“An important source of microplastic appears to be through sewage contaminated by fibers from washing clothes,” the authors of the study appearing in Environmental Science and Technology write. The researchers used forensics to look at microplastics from around the world and found that the major source of microplastic pollution was from washing synthetic clothing, and not—as also theorized—from larger plastic fragmentation or cleaning products.

Washing just one synthetic garment a single time could leach as much as 1,900 microplastics into the environment, according to the study. Currently, sewage filters are not made to capture these tiny plastics.

The study also found that microplastic pollution was ubiquitous. Surveying 18 shorelines on six continents, the researchers found that every shore was polluted with microplastics with the highest concentrations near urban areas. Yet, no one knows exactly what this means for the environment.

“Once the plastics had been eaten, its transferred from [the animals’] stomachs to their circulation system and actually accumulated in their cells,” Mark Browne, lead author with the University College Dublin, told the BBC.

The authors conclude that “as the human population grows and people use more synthetic textiles, contamination of habitats and animals by microplastic is likely to increase.”

CITATION: Mark A. Browne; Phillip Crump; Stewart J. Niven; Emma Teuten; Andrew Tonkin; Tamara Galloway; and Richard Thompson. Accumulation of Microplastic on Shorelines Woldwide: Sources and Sinks. Environmental Science & Technology. 2011.

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