Eat my shorts!

Date: 
January 29, 2012
Bart Simpson and the washing machine

Good news of a sort for cotton, sheep and silk farmers. A study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology has warned that microscopic plastic debris from washing clothes made of synthetic fabrics is accumulating in the marine environment and could be entering the food chain.

Researchers found that every time a garment made of synthetic material is put through a machine wash, up to 1,900 tiny fibers are released in the wastewater which eventually ends up, via the sewerage system, in rivers and the sea.

Earlier research showed plastic smaller than 1-mm were being eaten by animals and getting into the food chain. As it is said that “you are what you eat”, this is worrying.

The research team took samples from 18 beaches around the world and found that all contained “microplastic”, with highest concentrations in areas near large urban centers. Of the polymers found polyester, acrylic and nylon were predominant.

"It suggests to us that a large proportion of the fibers we were finding in the environment, in the strongest evidence yet, was derived from the sewerage as a consequence from washing clothes,” the papers' co-author Mark Browne, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told the BBC.

How the textile industry, washing machine manufacturers and municipal water treatment operators will react to this news remains to be seen but it is a safe bet that microplastic will be making it on to environmental score cards.