There is a plastic threat to the oceans that we cannot even see - plastic microfibres that come from clothing and textiles!  

Yup, you might not even be aware that your clothing is shedding hundreds of thousands of microscopic plastic strands into the water every time you wash them - and they are not filtered out before reaching the sea. Fortunately, now that you know about this enormous problem, you can help solve it simply by washing your clothes a little differently!

What can I do?

These tips are easy, and for the most part, save electricity and increase the wearable lifespan of your clothing too. If your clothing is made of completely natural fibres, these tips won’t make a difference - but it helps to form good habits as it can be quite tricky to avoid blends.

  • Wash your clothes less often. We easily get into the habit of washing things after wearing them once, but if they aren’t dirty or smelly, why not wear them again?
  • Wash at the lowest temperature setting possible. Heat softens the plastic fibres and allows more to be shed - cold washes are ideal!
  • Skip the tumble dryer! Although dryer lint doesn’t go down the drain, the plastic fibres freed up by the heat will be more easily washed away the next time the clothing is washed.
  • If your washing machine has a variable spin cycle, opt for slower spins for a longer time, rather than the high-speed settings. Higher speed spins shed more microfibres.
  • Wash hard items, like bags adn shoes, separately from soft clothing to prevent friction.
  • Consider using a filter bag to contain your synthetic fibre clothing when washing.
  • Use a biodegradable detergent - yup, some washing powders and fabric treatments contain microplastic. Remember to use your Beat the Microbead app like we learned for Pledge #8.
  • Finally, if you’re buying new clothes, try to buy natural fibres like cotton instead of synthetics or blended fabrics. We’ll be going into green wardrobes in more detail on day 24.

Make your pledge a permanent commitment by leaving an Ocean Pledge.

Why does it matter?

Even more ubiquitous than cigarette butts, microbeads and plastic bottles, are the tiny invisible strands of plastic that often emanate from our clothing. Think about it - most of our clothes contain some synthetic fabric like nylon, rayon, or polyester. The stuffing inside our favourite winter jackets, the elastic that gives our t-shirts that extra bit of stretch… most of it actually contains some plastic. 

Every time you do a load of washing, as many as 700 000 plastic microfibres, are released into the wastewater system which ultimately ends up in our rivers and seas.

This is a poly-cotton blend towel under the microscope - as those threads rub together in use or in the wash, strands of both cotton and plastic are released.

Zooming in closer, we can just how much "fluff" collects in water after vigorously rubbing this towel.

According to a 2017 IUCN report, as much as one-third of all the microplastics in the ocean comes from our clothes. Microfibres have been found everywhere – inside animals in the deepest ocean canyons, to the tissue of shell food, seagrass and zooplankton.

Think plastic microfibres are just an ocean problem? Think again, the average person consumes 71 000 pieces of microplastic a year. It’s in your food and drinking water, almost regardless of source. And the scary thing is that scientists have no idea what it is doing to our bodies.

Myth-busting: Your city’s municipality filters these plastic particles out of your wastewater.

Nope…

You might think a city like Cape Town is somewhat ahead of the curve, but not at all. Every day, Cape Town pumps about 50 million litres of raw, untreated sewage into the ocean - which includes all those plastic fibres your washing machine sends down the drain. Ever wondered why there are so many earbuds on Cape Town beaches? Well, now you know. 

Yup, it's pretty gross and a serious problem that goes far beyond microplastic!

Even in truly state-of-the-art cities, as much as a third of microplastics are too small to be caught by filters and remain in circulation in drinking water, or are pumped into the ocean or rivers. Microplastics that are caught by filters are, in any case, still an issue and will be taken to landfills where they can be easily blown into the environment.

Who can I follow?

Internationally, there are many incredible brands that focus on making clothing from natural fibres, or at least by using only recycled plastic when natural fibres are unsuitable for a particular purpose. In South Africa, Twyg is an online fashion magazine that emphasises sustainable concepts and great local brands, and you can likely find good, 100% cotton, hemp or other natural options at most large outlets.

No washing machine is currently certified as being able to filter out all microfibres, but newer, higher-end models are generally able to filter around 60% of them - although we can't recommend any brand in particular. Local products such as the EcoEgg and the numerous mesh laundry bags available online are excellent options for improving the lifespan of your clothing and reducing the plastics left through friction. Plus - don't forget to use the Beat The Microbead app to check your detergent!

Take the 28 Day Challenge! Make your Ocean Pledge!

This post is part of the #28DayOceanPledgeChallenge! You can find the other 27 posts and challenges on the Two Oceans Aquarium website, or by signing up for the Challenge newsletter below to receive one challenge a day for 28 days: