APRIL 30, 2012 -- When you pull your favorite fleece jacket snugly around you, you probably never think about how it could be contributing to marine pollution.
However, recent research has investigated exactly that, exploring whether synthetic fabric products (such as fleece) could be a potential source of microscopic plastic fibers in the ocean and on beaches.
While at University College Dublin (Ireland), lead researcher Mark Browne conducted an experiment which included washing fleece clothing and then counting the number of fibers left over in the wastewater from the washing machines.
He found that one piece of clothing could yield nearly 2,000 plastic fibers in a single wash—which would wind up not only in the wastewater but eventually in the marine environment.
In a complimentary experiment, he explored whether similar plastic fibers end up in beach sediments. His research uncovered that microplastic fibers, mostly polyester and acrylic, are showing up on beaches across the world, whether samples were gathered near sites where wastewater was discharged or not.
In other words, teeny plastic fibers from your synthetic clothing could make their way to the ocean. Because synthetics (plastics) can persist for a long time and travel along ocean currents, the topic of microplastic pollution has emerged in the past five years as a cause for concern.
The premise and conclusions of Dr. Browne's research are provocative. This study is one of the first of its kind to pinpoint a specific source of microplastic marine debris. Because of the complexity of the topic, we still don’t have good estimates for how much of this debris is out there and how it enters the environment.
Dr. Browne's work is a good example of a hypothesis-driven research project that has filled important knowledge gaps in our estimation of what kinds of debris end up on beaches. It has implications for how we could prevent this source of microplastic marine pollution. His research is also timely—an international working group (GESAMP) has just taken up the topic of microplastic debris and will be performing a global assessment of its sources and impacts.
More than anything, this research points to the complex nature of marine debris. Who would have thought that plastic particles from our clothing could make their way into the ocean? Unfortunately, there is not a single solution that will fix all the problems associated with marine debris, but good science allows us to find the best options for dealing with them.
For now, wash carefully, and educate yourself and others on the issue of plastics in our ocean.