There’s a lot of concern over plastics these days. Just this year, Canada labelled microbeads toxic. It's next step is to ban the tiny plastics beads from cosmetics, a move that Waterkeeper and our partners recommended back in 2015.
But microbeads aren't the only plastics problem facing Lake Ontario. In fact, plastic pollution now accounts for 80% of all the waste in the Great Lakes.
One particular type of microplastic has long gone under the radar for years – microfibres.
They’re almost undetectable to the naked eye and smaller than a strand of silk. Tiny synthetic fibres from garments, cleaning cloths, and other consumer products have flooded waterways all over the world.
Like other microplastics, microfibres are too small for wastewater treatment plants to filter out. The consequences for fish – and consumers of fish alike – are grim.
Fish and smaller aquatic life eat microfibres, mistaking the strands for food, accumulate in their stomachs, causing fish to starve. Studies have also shown that ingested plastic has an effect on the reproduction and growth on aquatic life.
Plastics also have the ability to carry toxins. Even though the long term effects of ingested microplastics are not known, it probably isn’t wise to introduce toxins into the food chain.
Microfibres are considered the number one microplastics polluter. It is estimated that 1,900 individual fibres are rinsed off per wash – and that’s just from a single, average garment. One fleece jacket can release 250,000 synthetic fibres. A polyester jacket can shed up to 1 million microfibres.
A recent study funded by outdoor clothing company Patagonia, reported that up to 40% of microfibres traveling to wastewater treatment plants are not filtered out. The greatest concentrations of microfibres are found near sewage overflows.
85% of human-made material recently found on shorelines worldwide were microfibres. Ecologist Mark Browne spent months investigating pollution along shorelines around the world.
In 2015, the National Geographic summarized three scientific papers, reporting that a staggering 4 billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer litter the deep sea. A new report has projected that “in 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the sea.”
What has been done?
Canada and the United States have both moved to ban microbeads. On June 29, 2016, “plastic microbeads that are ≤ 5 mm in size” were added to Canada’s Toxic Substances List (Schedule 1). While this was a step forward to put pollution prevention measures in place, it only applies to one type of microplastic (tiny plastic particles that act as scrubbers in everyday care products such as facial cleansers, body wash, shaving cream).
With other forms of plastics polluting waterways – microfibres being the most prominent – recent legislation is barely skimming the surface.
In order to properly protect our increasingly fragile aquatic ecosystems, action is needed on a larger scale. Microfibres are found in enormous quantities in fish and waterbodies. They’re even found in products for human use, like sea salt.
While microplastics seem to be a problem that is not getting addressed fast enough, solving the bigger problem can’t happen overnight. Government, industry, and consumers all have to participate.
What can you do to reduce environmental releases of microfibres?
Until better regulation is in place, you can still help. Every little thing counts, especially when it comes to microfibres.
If you can, buy less by purchasing better quality clothing.
Recent studies found better quality clothing are more durable and shed fewer microfibres than cheaper alternatives. So even though paying sometimes double for a jacket may initially hurt your wallet, in the long-term, you’re preventing more microfibres from shedding.
Do less laundry and wear your shirt more than once!
Some people really can’t help how stinky they are. But if your clothes don’t need to get washed, put it back in your closet and wear it again later. Washing clothing is a good way to wear the fabric down. The more worn a piece of clothing is, the more fibres are released during the washing process.
Support Waterkeeper’s investigative work on microplastics.
Waterkeeper and Ontario Streams are taking a close look at microplastics this summer and will release the report this fall. Follow along on social media, show your support by making a purchase in our online store, volunteer, or donate! Do what you can to show your support!
Help protect your shoreline by reporting pollution.
If you’re out by the water and you see pollution (such as sewage debris, oil, bluegreen algae, plastics, etc…) – report it. When you report pollution, damage to the shoreline is limited, and immediate action can be taken to clean up and locate the source to avoid future issues.
Spread the word.
A lot of people still don’t know about the gaps in regulation and negative consequences of microplastics pollution. So talk to your family and friends. If you’re out shopping, ask them if they’re aware of the issue. Despite the amount of attention microbeads has received recently, you’ll be surprised at how many people still don’t know about the issue.