For millennials and Gen-Z, or “Zoomers,” the global warming crisis looms larger than the pandemic, larger than health care, larger than (for example) the budget deficit, because this generation is staring down the gun-barrel of an unlivable future, which they will survive to witness firsthand. (Boomers often criticize the supposed sanctimony of this urgent youth movement, but what do they care, after all?). A close second in priority is the plastics crisis — including the microplastics pollution crisis — because (did you know?) plastics, which are made of petroleum, disintegrate to create greenhouse gases, and discarded plastics are taking over the world.
Here are a few thoughts from a New York city high school senior on one part of the problem: microplastics, and specifically its ties to our clothing.
What Are Microplastics?
Microplastics are small pieces of plastic that are less than five millimeters long. They are created unintentionally when plastic products degrade, or are intentionally produced for products such as exfoliators that contain microbeads. A new study estimates that more than 1,000 tons (more than 123 million plastic water bottles) of microplastics rain down on protected areas in the western US annually. According to a study originally published in Nature Geoscience, a daily rate of 365 microplastic particles per square meter was recorded falling from the sky in southern France. Scientists warn that we are creating a “plastic planet.”
What does all of this mean for us? We know that microplastics are in our food, water, and air. While research on the health impacts of microplastics is still being done, we do know that ingested microplastics can leach chemicals which can cause cancer, birth defects, and organ damage. We can also take a hint from the effect microplastics are having on marine life. In aquatic creatures, they block digestive tracts causing some species to starve and die, and they also reduce reproductive output. In addition, other small particles have been linked to vast numbers of health impacts in humans such as asthma, heart attacks and even impaired memory and IQ in children.
Our Clothing’s Impact and What We Can Do
And now, the final question: what does this have to do with clothing? While microplastics come from a huge number of sources, and cutting plastic out of our lives as much as possible is the end goal, it is estimated that synthetic clothes are a main source of microplastics and are the cause of 35% of the global release of primary microplastics into the oceans.
Synthetic clothes are clothes made out of plastic fibers such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic. Washing them is one way that we contribute to the creation of microplastics, as they break off of our clothes in the wash and flow out into our water.
To avoid this, you can try to avoid synthetic fibers when you shop, whether for new or used goods. When purchasing items made out of recycled materials, try to look for items you won’t wash often. For clothes you already own, you can use (listed from least to most effective) a Cora Ball, a Guppyfriend Washing Bag or a microplastic filter such as the Lint Luv-R.
Written by Julianne C., a New York City high school student.
This essay originally appeared in LaGuardia High School’s “Green Team” newsletter.
Images from Tom Fisk/Pexels, Brian Yuracits/Unsplash and The Digital Artist/Pixabay