One-use plastics are covering our planet like a disease. Today, it’s a challenge to find a product that’s not sold in plastic. Even plastic is sold in plastic - and then put into even more plastic to take home! We are currently producing nearly 300 million tons of plastic every year, and around 50% of that is used once before being thrown away. The equivalent of a rubbish truckload of this plastic is being flushed into our oceans every minute. It sinks to the bottom, floats to the top, washes up on the shore, and ends up in the stomachs of many marine animals. Which means that it’s slowly but surely making its way back onto our dinner plates.
Regardless of where this disposable product ends up, being made of an indestructible material means that it will not decompose. Almost every piece of plastic ever made is still on this planet in some form or another. In the ocean, plastic will eventually break up by sunlight, salt and wave movement into ‘rice-sized’ microplastics, that measure up to five millimetres. And while it may seem like our beaches, especially in Australia, are ‘crystal clear’, there is not a spot in the ocean today that isn’t contaminated with a ‘plastic smog’ of microplastics floating on the ocean’s surface.
How does the fashion industry contribute?
The fashion industry is the third biggest contributor to marine pollution, behind oil and agriculture. To produce large quantities of fibres quickly that are used to create clothing, crops are treated with toxic chemicals that run from the fields into our waterways. But the pollution doesn’t stop there. It also comes from the clothes we already own!
Microfibres come from synthetic fabrics such as polyester, acrylic and nylon, which is what most of the clothes we own are made from. When we wash our clothes, these tiny fibres are released. A single fleece jacket is estimated to release a million fibres in a single washing. The tiny pieces of plastic are too small to be filtered so they end up in our oceans.
Over 60% of the plastic debris found in the marine environment is from microfibers from our clothing, making it the biggest contributor. Not only is it polluting our water, it’s littering shorelines and contaminating food systems. If you eat fish, plastic could be finishing up in your stomach!
How is it ending up on our plates?
New research by the National Center for Biotechnology Information suggests that not only are marine life mistaking these ‘rice-sized’ pieces of plastic for food, but they could be actively seeking out microplastics, because of their odour. The biological ‘coating’ that forms around the microplastics is made of algae and other materials that smell like what fish would usually eat. The smaller fish, like anchovies, are ingesting microplastics which are then eaten by larger fish contaminating the entire food chain.
A team of scientists from Malaysia and France studied small fish including mackerel, anchovies, mullets and croakers and found that the plastic could be contaminating the flesh that we consume. They found a total of 36 microplastics in 120 small fish including nylon, polystyrene and polyethylene. The waterborne chemicals from industry and agriculture that stick to the rough pitted surface of microplastics make them toxic poison pills. The study suggested that because the plastic attracts toxins in the environment, these poisons could be released into our bodies after we eat fish.
It’s no secret that something needs to change. What isn’t already harming us, is killing our marine life and adding a disgusting amount of toxicity to our oceans.
So what can we do?
Living a completely waste-free life might seem slightly too far out of reach at the moment, but it’s something we all need to work towards. They say there’s plenty of fish in the sea, but if we don’t make huge changes by 2050, all of the plastic in the ocean is estimated to weigh more than all the fish.
Next time you go shopping, take a look at how much plastic you’re picking up. Once you start to notice it, it’s hard not to consider how wasteful and unnecessary it is. Single-use plastic has become a bad habit that we can and must break. Choose to bring your own carry bags, go for the individually weighed fruit and veg over the pre-packed bags, and if you do really need to use a plastic bag, bring it back with you next time you go shopping. They don’t advertise it enough, and it’s often hidden, but most supermarkets have a soft plastics bin where you can recycle your plastic bags (and any other plastics soft enough to squish in your hand).
You can reduce the number of microfibers that go from your clothes to our ocean by washing on cold and purchasing a washing machine filter. Some companies are even already selling laundry bags that trap the plastic fibres from going down the drain. The Guppy Friend, a mesh laundry bag, captures 99% of fibres released in the washing process.
Microplastics may be small, but they are causing big problems for our environment and our health. Let’s break this cycle of plastic waste together.