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Microplastics are a growing concern for both human health and the environment. Scientists believe humans ingest somewhere between a dozen and more than 100,000 microplastic particles every day through inhalation, ingestion, and dermal absorption, according to News Medical, a medical and life science hub.
“Aesthetically I don’t get excited about the idea that anything I eat, or drink has little bits of plastic in it,” says Michael Rennie, a fisheries ecologist, and associate professor at Lakehead University.
There is not much definitive research on the impact microplastics have on human health, and while the number of publications is growing, the possible repercussions are still unknown, according to Frontiers article.
Dr. Nicola Williams suggests in her article that microplastics may not only act as irritants but could also have the potential for metabolic disturbance, neurotoxicity, and even carcinogenic effects. Microplastics have also been found to act as vectors for microorganisms and toxic chemicals, further raising concerns about their impact on human health.
“The science on this stuff is still in its infancy and so without some of those definitive studies where they’re peer-reviewed and everyone really must worry about it, the incentive is lagging to really get moving on it,” says Rennie.
Eva Pip, a toxicologist and professor at The University of Winnipeg, explains microplastics break into smaller and smaller pieces in the environment, which is cause for major concern as they get into our watersheds where aquatic creatures eat them.
“It looks like food to them and so they will ingest it and they can end up starving to death because in their gut all this material is indigestible and then it accumulates and compacts there, causing them to die from starvation,” says Pip.
Microplastics originate from all kinds of everyday products and contain chemicals like phthalates that make plastics more durable. They are colourless, odourless, oily liquids that are used in making plastics, solvents, and personal care products, according to the National Institutes of Health. Humans are regularly exposed to phthalates as they make cosmetics flexible and make the fragrance last longer. For example, when people buy a bottle of shampoo or any other hygiene product, and they look at the label it may say parfum, which Pip says is a codeword for phthalate.
“These compounds are everywhere and when they get into the environment, they accumulate in fish causing feminization of male fish […] so they’re sterile they can’t reproduce,” says Pip.
Pip explains this influences fish populations and the entire ecosystem.
Where Do Microplastics Come From?
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, there are seven major sources of primary microplastics: synthetic textiles, tires, marine coatings, road markings, personal care products, plastic pellets, and city dust. These tiny pieces of plastic have an impact on our environment, from polluting our water supply to harming wildlife.
Microplastics come in different shapes and sizes including beads, fibres, and fragments. Microfibres, which are shed from fabric and are the most prevalent type of microplastics. The worst offenders come from synthetic fibres (including nylon, polyester, acrylic, and spandex), which are often used in fast fashion garments.
By cutting corners to save money and speed up production, fast fashion producers end up compromising the environment. An article from One Green Planet, a website that aims to help readers make conscious choices to help people, animals, and the planet, has reported the fashion industry — valued at $3 trillion — is the second most polluting industry after the oil industry.
Fashion and Microplastics
The European Environmental Agency says approximately eight per cent of microplastics released into the oceans from Europe are attributed to synthetic textiles, while on a global scale, this percentage is estimated to be between 16 to 35 per cent. Therefore, a University of Plymouth study found that more than 700,000 microscopic fibres could be released every time clothes are washed.
These fibres detach from our clothing during their wash cycle and go into wastewater. The fibres are tiny, making it easy for them to pass through the filtration process where they eventually end up in our oceans and lakes. Microfibres may also be released during manufacturing, wearing and washing, and disposal of the garment.
“A lot of these plastics do not have a long lifespan in terms of being usable, recyclable, but they have an extremely long life after we throw them away,” says Pip. “They can take thousands of years to break down and there are thousands of different plastics.”
The Slow Label, a company that stands for high-quality and long-lasting pieces says synthetic fibres are impossible to recycle. Clothing made from synthetic material are not biodegradable and can sit in landfills for up to 200 years before they decompose.
Plastic microfibres contain toxins, such as pesticides and industrial chemicals. When they finally break down, they leach out into the environment and affect the ecosystem, eventually making their way up the food chain. Microfibres are mistakenly ingested by fish and humans as they transfer along the food chain.
“All these different types of plastics are eating up valuable resources to manufacture them. These are non-renewable resources that we’re taking and putting into products, and we can’t get those materials out again. It becomes a dead resource, it’s wasted because we can’t remake it into something that’s less harmful,” says Pip.
The fast fashion industry puts pressure on natural resources, pollutes, degrades the environment and its ecosystems, and creates significant negative societal impacts at local, regional, and global scales. Enormous amounts of non-renewable resources are used to produce these garments, only for them to be discarded into landfills or incineration facilities after a couple of wears. It is estimated that more than half of fast fashion clothing is disposed of in under a year.
Europe and Canada are taking a multi-faceted approach to address the problem of microplastics, through research, regulation, and public education. While more work needs to be done, these efforts represent important first steps toward a cleaner and more sustainable future.
Research has shown that the waste waters of the Assiniboine and Red rivers bring 400 million pieces of tiny plastic into Lake Winnipeg annually.
Microplastics were found in every site sampled on the Assiniboine and Red rivers and in nearly every fish dissected. The research suggests that synthetic clothing, commercial toiletry products, and wastewater treatment plants in Winnipeg could be the main sources of microplastics. Most of the plastic found (89 percent of the samples) was microfibers.
Wastewater treatment plants filter out about 90 per cent of microplastics, but the remaining 10 per cent end up in local rivers, and eventually Lake Winnipeg.
While it’s not clear yet if wastewater effluent is the main source of microplastics in Lake Winnipeg, past studies have shown that treatment facilities in other places are better at catching microbeads as opposed to the fibers that make up the bulk of microplastics in Lake Winnipeg.
“There are actions being taken, governments are currently going after the low-hanging fruit in terms of trying to mitigate the problem, getting rid of plastic beads, scrubs, plastic bags, reducing Styrofoam (styrene),” says Rennie. “From that perspective, I think there is some effort in trying to reduce the production of this stuff.”
Pip explains, like everything, people hate new bans or rules. “They hated wearing seatbelts when they came into effect, they hated wearing masks through COVID-19,” says Pip. “Sometimes it’s what we have to do. We must suck it up because what’s the alternative, we cannot go on this way.”
Canadians have various options available to tackle the problem of microplastics in the environment. To decrease plastic waste, consumers can adopt several measures such as using reusable containers and bags, avoiding disposable plastics, and choosing eco-friendly fabric options like organic cotton, wool, hemp, or bamboo. The fashion industry is causing severe harm to the environment, and Canadians must take action by pursuing alternative options, promoting an eco-friendly fashion industry, and making environmentally conscious decisions as consumers.
Plastic was first developed in the early 1900s, but it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that its use became widespread. It quickly became a popular material due to its durability, versatility, and low cost. Plastic has since become an integral part of our daily lives, used in everything from packaging and electronics to medical equipment.
“It’s only now that we’re starting to say well maybe this isn’t the greatest thing in the world, so 70 years from now what does that say about what concentrations of microplastics we’re going to find in the environment, in breast milk, in our beer whatever else,” says Rennie.
Canadians must focus on reducing the number of microplastics that end up in our oceans and lakes. This includes using more advanced filtration systems to remove microplastics from wastewater, purchasing clothing from sustainable and ethical clothing brands, and getting more education on microplastics and the dangers it poses to humans and the environment.
While widespread policy change is needed, there are some individual actions we can take:
Update your Laundry Routine
Changing a laundry routine can substantially limit the number of microplastics making their way into Manitoba watersheds. According to Concordia Precious Plastic Project, 60 per cent of clothing material is made from plastic-based materials like nylon, polyester, acrylic, spandex, and other synthetic fibres. During a clothing wash, hundreds of thousands of microplastics are released.
According to a New York Times article, some ways to mindfully avoid microplastic shedding are:
Limiting loads — The fewer loads, the fewer microplastics our clothes shed.
Running Full loads — Washing full loads means fewer cycles, as well as less water and friction reducing the number of microplastics being shed.
Using cooler and shorter cycles — Hot and long wash cycles increase the number of microplastics released compared to cool and short cycles.
Choosing liquid instead of powder — Using liquid detergent over powder can help limit the number of microplastic shedding. According to Pour Nous, a website that offers eco-friendly and environmentally friendly cleaning products, 49 per cent of all liquid detergents and about 77 per cent of powder detergents, contain microplastics.
Using Laundry bags
Laundry bags are an effective and easy option to reduce microplastic pollution. Simply add your dirty laundry to the bag and wash your clothes in it. The bag collects the microfibers that break away from the fabric and can then be easily removed and disposed of in the garbage. This prevents the microplastics from entering the water system.
One popular bag, the Guppyfriend, says the bag collects 90 per cent of microfibres and reduces fibre breakage by 79 to 86 per cent.
Using Laundry balls
The Cora Ball will reduce microfibre shedding by 31 per cent by reducing fibre breakage which makes clothes last longer. It is the only laundry ball marketed toward the microplastic problem. Just toss the ball into the washing machine with each laundry cycle.
Adding a Washing machine filters
Washing machine filters require a little more work to set up than a laundry ball or bag. This device is installed on the outside of your washing machine where it must be emptied in the trash every two to 10 loads.
These washing machine filters are shown to reduce microfiber pollution by 80 per cent in wastewater.
There are many different laundry filters available to purchase to address microfiber shedding. Each varies in price and size, but all require installation.
Filtrol — $159.99
MicroPlastics LUV-R — $190
Girlfriend Collective Microfiber Filter — $45 (must purchase additional parts)
PlanetCare Microfiber Filters — $86.06
Switch to Sustainable fashion
Clothing is part of daily life, and for many, it’s a way to claim identity and self-expression. It is also a source of microplastics. Canadians can make clothing choices that help to reduce the impact of microplastics on people and the ecosystem. Choosing clothing that is sustainable and ethical is possible. The best option is to buy fewer clothes, purchase second-hand clothing, or participate in clothing swaps. When buying new clothes, research brands and fabrics that minimize the environmental toll.
When shopping, look for garments that are made from natural fabrics like cotton, bamboo, linen, and wool. Choose to buy from brands that embody slow, circular fashion and are transparent about their environmental impact, durability, and Fair Trade Certification.
Advocate for better Policies
For real change to happen around microplastic regulation, we need policy change at the governmental level. Advocating for change is one way to tell the decision makers that you care about microplastics and how they are affecting people and the planet. Getting involved in advocacy by signing petitions and supporting organizations that are working on the issue is another way to reduce the impact of fast fashion and other microplastic polluters.
There are plenty of organizations doing this important work that you can support:
- Sign The Story of Stuff project petition motivating individuals to join the 43,007 participants that have a similar interest in assuring clothing companies take responsibility for microfiber pollution.
- Sign the Earth Day petition that highlights the harmful effects of plastic on our marine life as well as on ourselves.
- Keep up to date with Ocean Clean Wash, a campaign proposed by the Plastic Soup Foundation to bring attention to plastic pollution in our oceans.
- Follow the Plastic Health Summit taking place in Brussels on May 11, 2023. Experts from around the world will come together to share their revolutionary studies. Pre-register for the event.
- Lobby and write letters to local politicians to address microplastic issues. With every single letter they receive, they start to realize the implications it could have on their votes.
Although plastic is a valuable, useful resource and makes up many items in our daily lives, mismanagement, improper handling, and abuse of plastics result in microplastic pollution.
Microplastics are a significant problem worldwide. Scientists have found microplastics everywhere they have looked. They are becoming more widespread, causing harm to the environment and the population.
“I would say that over the past decade, it’s become clear that microplastics are everywhere, they’re wherever we look for them. They’re ubiquitous within humans, it’s found in breast milk, tissues, etc. It would be next to impossible to say tomorrow we’re going to divorce ourselves from plastics,” says Rennie.
Fortunately, there are ways to reduce the number of microplastics in the environment and limit exposure. In addition to individual efforts to reduce microplastics, implementing efficient waste management methods, increasing the shelf life of plastic items, and creating awareness can limit the number of microplastics put into our environment and allow the ecosystem to be restored.