It is common knowledge that microplastics in the ocean are a prevalent issue, not only affecting marine creatures but also the ocean micro-plants that provide 50% of the world’s oxygen.
What most don’t realize is that “plastic microfibers are the most common type of human-made particles in the oceans and are responsible for 80% to 90% of microplastics that are emitted in the environment”, according to Forbes. We well understand the negative impact of plastic microfibers in our oceans so what is stopping us limiting (or better yet) even banning microfiber sources?
To answer this question, we need to look into the source of plastic microfibers and the social and economic challenges to eliminating plastic microfibers from washing water as a by-produce of synthetic clothing materials.
One social challenge is the lack of awareness about the issue of the water contamination by plastic microfibers found in washing synthetic fabrics. To put into perspective how small microfibers are, Science Direct offers insight, “half the diameter of a fine silk fiber, one-third the diameter of cotton, one-quarter the diameter of fine wool, and one hundred times finer than human hair” proving little can be done in the open ocean. Without a deeper understanding of the scale, it is difficult to generate public support for measures that address the root cause of this issue.
Another social challenge is the convenience and perceived value of synthetic fabrics. Synthetic fabrics, such as polyester and nylon, are popular due to their low cost, easy care, and performance characteristics. However, these fabrics also shed microfibers during washing, contributing to plastic pollution. Changing consumer preferences towards natural fibers, which do not shed microfibers, can be difficult due to the convenience, low costs, and perceived value of synthetic fabrics.
From an economic perspective, the higher upfront investment required to convert waste water treatment to alternative technologies can be very high. Current technologies for removing microfibers from washing water are expensive and are not available in residential and commercial laundries. Additionally, there are little general incentives to invest in these technologies, as the costs are often passed on to consumers.
Another economic challenge is the potential impacts to the textile industry. The use of synthetic fibers is widespread in the textile industry, and a shift towards natural fibers could have significant economic implications. This could include changes to production processes and supply chains, as well as increased costs for consumers.
Overall, addressing the issue of plastic microfibers in washing water will require a multi-faceted approach that considers both social and economic factors. Microfiber pollution also poses a socioeconomic question related to the earnings of individuals as synthetic fabrics provide affordable clothing for low income households. It is also noted that some individuals that can afford better quality materials still choose to support “fast fashion” buying excessive products to meet ever changing fashion trends.
If synthetic fabrics were to be banned, then the environment would benefit, but it would add to the growing economic pressure of low income households. In an ideal world, individuals would do their part to contribute to the sustainability of our planet and educate themselves on ways they can reduce microfibers.
It seems that the answer to this complex issue is that everyone must do their own part, individuals, communities, businesses, and governments all have a role to play in the scheme of making a difference!