Microplastics: How Fashion Ends Up in Our Food

If you had to guess, how much plastic would you say that you eat every single year? Chances are- not very much, right?

That would totally be true, if we were only talking about the plastic that you see and recognize in daily life like bottles, containers, or toys- items larger than say, a sesame seed.

But a 2019 study from the University of Victoria found that just 15% of the average American’s diet would contain between 39,000 to 52,000 particles of microplastic every year - an abstract number made much more alarming when summed up as eating a plastic credit card every single week, a comparison made by Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico while announcing legislation to reduce plastic pollution. 

Microplastics in Food
Caption: This is 250 grams of microplastics - the estimated amount of plastic that we consume every single year. All credit goes to Reuters Graphics for making us reevaluate how we eat our greens...

So what exactly is a microplastic, how do we end up eating so many of them, and what does fashion have to do with it?

Glad you asked!

A microplastic is a piece of plastic (a synthetic material typically made from fossil fuels like crude oil) that is less than five millimeters in length.

Ok, great, got it.

Considering that for the most part, plastic isn’t manufactured as teeny tiny pieces (but we’ve got our eye on you, microbeads), how else are microplastics created?

Microplastics form as larger plastics break down, simple as that. But as you know, there is a lot of plastic in our world right now - and every single piece creates microplastics. From bottles to bags to your favorite fleece jacket, every item made with these synthetic elements “sheds” them. Considering that the lifespan of most plastics is measured in centuries, this shedding process means that plastic doesn’t go away- it just gets smaller and smaller.

The Lifecycle of Plastics
Caption: World Wildlife Fund

Which solves our second question- how we end up eating so much plastic. We eat microplastics because they are absolutely everywhere and essentially invisible. They are in our water supply, our food sources, and even the air we breathe.

This is getting a bit doom and gloom, but that’s not what we’re about here at Tiller Swim. Still, you can’t get to a solution without first understanding the problem (so hang in there!).

Now that we’ve got our facts together, we’re ready for our final question - what does fashion have to do with any of this?

Vogue, once again, clues us in: “Clothing made from synthetic materials — polyester, nylon and acrylic — sheds so-called microfibres, a type of microplastic contaminating waterways, and increasingly, the air.”

Up to 700,000 of these synthetic fibres can be released in a single load of laundry, a number that seems shockingly high until you remember that almost half of all our clothes are made from plastic.

Where Do Microplastics Come From?
Caption: Fashion Revolution

So to sum up:

  1. There’s a lot of plastic
  2. That then creates a massive amount of tiny plastics
  3. And a large majority of these tiny plastics come from our wardrobe and end up in our bodies (not to mention our environment).

Okay wow we did it- we got to the end of our three questions, which has most likely left you with a lot more questions than answers.

If you’re like us, the main one is probably- so what can we do about it?

Plenty! While widespread systemic changes are absolutely necessary, there’s a lot that you and I can do in the meantime.

  • We can reduce the amount of plastic we purchase overall - not an especially hot take, but if you’re hearing it here first, feel free to check out resources like My Plastic Free Life and Trash is for Tossers.
  • Use a Guppyfriend bag when washing your clothes! This bag catches the sneaky, tiny plastics so that you can simply throw them away instead of letting them flow back into our water supply (since they really are too small to be caught by any filters- for now).

Guppy Friend Laundry Bag for Microplastics

As always, the biggest thing to remember is that we’re all in this together and there’s no such thing as “doing it perfectly”.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the magnitude of problems like microplastics, but just like all of the everyday choices that create issues like pollution, our collective action can be the very thing that solves them.

by Rachel Burcham | August 6, 2020

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