A big component of plastic pollution comes from microfibres, which strangely enough are generated by our clothes. More specifically when we wash them, which makes the garment shed thousands of tiny pieces of plastic.
As microfibres are clearly not as distinct as a plastic bottle lying around on the beach, many people are unaware of the problem that comes with it, which is why we decided to dig a little deeper. The topic of microfibres can sometimes be a bit confusing and so to clear the air, we got in touch with the microfibre experts over at Hubbub. We had the incredible opportunity to have a chat with Heather Poore, their Creative Director, who led one of their latest campaigns "What's In My Wash?". She explains to us that we as individuals actually play a big part in saving our precious oceans from microfibres - and it all begins with your clothes!
Hubbub is an environmental charity, whose purpose is to inspire lifestyles that are good for the environment. They do this by designing campaigns that make environmental action desirable – starting with topics people are passionate about and which they can relate to, day to day. Sustainable fashion is one area of work but they also create campaigns that aim to do things like reducing food waste, encouraging more sustainable diets, reducing plastic waste and pollution, reducing air pollution and people’s exposure to it and reducing water use.
What led you to start the What’s In My Wash campaign?
Hubbub is always looking for ways to encourage more sustainable fashion. Over the past couple of years, we’d noticed snippets of research started to appear making the connection between the clothes we wear and plastic pollution and waste. Ellen MacArthur then released the ‘A New Textiles Economy’ report which stated 1/3 of all primary microplastic pollution in our ocean comes from washing textiles. We believed more awareness was needed and more action needed to be taken, so we set out to create a campaign to do just this and a hub where people could go to get the latest research and information on the issue.
What are the different kinds of microplastics (microbeads, microfibres, etc.) and are they all as equally polluting?
Microplastics is the umbrella term for the variety of tiny plastics. The differences between each kind are where they come from. Microfibres are tiny strands of fibre which shed from textiles – usually less than 5mm in length. Microbeads are the tiny balls of plastic you find in products like face scrubs, though these are now banned from UK cosmetics. The amount of pollution from each does vary – but according to Ellen MacArthur Foundation, around half a million tonnes of plastic microfibres a year contribute to ocean pollution – 16 times more than the plastic microbeads from cosmetics. Unlike microbeads, they can't simply be removed from our supply chain.
What is something that most people don't know about microfibres?
The majority of our clothes are made using synthetic materials like polyester, nylon or acrylic – this is actually a type of plastic and this is where plastic microfibres come from! They’re in our drinks, food and we even breathe them in! They’ve been found in global oceans, rivers, agricultural soils, marine and freshwater animals, and products sold for human consumption including fish, honey, sea salt and drinking water. A recent study in Austria studied human stool samples and found microplastics in all of them. This suggests that plastic could be found widespread in our food chain.
Do you notice an increasing awareness about microfibre pollution after your #Whatsinmywash Campaign? Are you optimistic about the way people & businesses handle the microfibre pollution problem?
Yes, we did - the campaign had a reach of 1.67 million and gained over 200 pieces of media coverage including The Sun (scroll down before you think we've misdirected you to the Love island look!), Metro, Mail Online, Stylist and Huffington Post. Our pop up installation had over 750 conversations with the public at Old Street tube station in June and the Bond Street tube installation in November 2018 and are continuing to bring together different parts of the industry. Lots of work still needs to be done to research the issue, its impact on animals and humans - and of course to find solutions. It’s important that we build collaborations across different sectors and industries as it’s such a big and complex issue, no business or organisation can tackle it alone.
What is the biggest problem we are facing in terms of microfibre pollution - is it the contribution to the piling plastic in the ocean or is it more about the food chain and the effect this has on humans?
Truth be told, we aren't 100% sure about the biological effects of microfibre pollution. This is why it's so important that more research takes place. We know that previous studies showed that plastic can lead to chemical and biological changes in ocean organisms. We also know that microfibres have a unique shape and associated chemicals, and can attract pathogens and pollutants throughout their life cycle.
At BLANC, we cannot agree more with Vivienne Westwood's message "Buy less, choose well, make it last". What's your approach to fashion?
The most sustainable clothes are the ones you already have – buy less, choose well, make it last. I couldn’t say it better myself! From Hubbub’s perspective, collaboration is always key to approaching tackling sustainability.
How can individuals help to stop microfibre waste?
How you wash your clothes is one of the most important ways that we as individuals can reduce the likelihood of microfibres shedding in the wash.
1. Choose clothing which is more durable, you'll get more wears from, and which won't end up in the bin. The UK already sends 350,000 tonnes of clothing to landfill every year (WRAP). Over time this clothing breaks down into microplastics which can find their way into ecosystems and often our oceans too.
2. Microfibres are released in the wash, so if you can get another wear out of something, let it air instead.
3. Wash clothes at 30°C. Not only does this save energy, but research also suggests it can limit microfibre shedding as cooler water doesn’t wear your clothes as much as hotter one.
4. Air dry your clothes. Tumble dryers may wear your clothes out increasing the likelihood of microfibre release on the next wash. Your clothes will stay in shape for longer too! If you have a condenser tumble dryer, the liquid collected may contain plastic microfibres – empty it into the bin rather than your sink.
5. Support #WhatsInMyWash – share a picture of your clothing care label and pledge to wash your clothes with care.
So, individuals can make a difference by washing and taking care of their clothes more consciously, but are there any large-scale solutions for microfibre pollution?
Various large scale solutions have been trialled, from pre-washing fabrics to designing filters that can be retrofitted to washing machines to prevent the pollution filtering into our waterways. Currently, there isn’t one set solution that we’re aware of, which can be applied without other barriers or limitations. We believe there’s huge potential in the future of fabrics and fabric design to find more sustainable sources for fabric and reduce plastic pollution – however the technicalities and expertise here fall outside of our work.