The Unexpected Plastic Poisoning Our Earth

We should start watching what we wash, and here’s why.

Plastic bags and bottles aren’t the only culprits when it comes to pollution. There’s a new and quieter plastic that’s causing problems, and it comes from your clothing.

According to The New York Times, most household garments contain tiny fibers, less than one millimeter wide, that come from our clothes after we launder them. These fibers make their way from our sewage and drainage systems into the world’s oceans, rivers, and seas, where they can cause significant damage.

Not only are the fibers poisoning our ecosystem, but they can also spell trouble for living creatures, both humans and wildlife. When these fibers enter the natural environment, they can leak into the food chain and interfere with lung function. Once they enter our lungs and guts, the fiber’s synthetic polymers enter the bloodstream, where they can cause a plethora of health problems, including cancer and blood clots.

The New York Times discusses the research that led to such conclusions:

At the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in California, my colleagues and I reviewed numerous medical, toxicological and ecological studies about the links between micro- and nano-size debris and disease and mortality in humans and wildlife. Medical studies showed, for example, that injecting hamsters with plastic particles caused blood cells to form clots. Other research found that plastics can cause damage by increasing concentrations of metal and protein in cells. This damages DNA, and kills cells and causes tissue inflammation.

Other factors in this toxic equations include the dyes, surfactants in the detergents, and antimicrobials that come from these fibers leaking from sewage systems back into nature.

The problem with this quiet threat is that there are currently no government-mandated proof-of-harm policies to encourage companies to manufacture safer products. The clothing manufacturers have no reason to reduce fiber pollution, nor might they fully understand the repercussions of their products.  In order to make any real change, these companies will need proof-of-safety policies that order the industries to take the necessary precautions by creating safer products.

Governments must take the reigns by creating proof-of-safety policies that require the industry to reduce emissions of toxic fibers from products.  Similar policies exist in order to provide deposit schemes for plastic bottles, making it easier for the average citizen to recycle. When applied to this issue, a new policy might “encourage ecologists, designers and engineers to work together to identify features of clothing that cause the shedding of fibers, developing safer alternatives.”

Teams are already discussing possible solutions. The New York Times addresses some of these ideas:

The Benign by Design program, a partnership between the University of New South Wales in Australia, the University of California, Northwestern University and the clothing designer Eileen Fisher, aims to change this. We’re pioneering tests to investigate whether washing apparel with filters can control emissions of toxic fibers. We also hope to resolve the longstanding debate over whether natural fibers are more damaging than plastic ones — an issue of obvious concern to consumers.

Another idea includes the use of the Higg Index, a system used by apparel and footwear companies in an attempt to reduce waste and excess chemicals, water, and energy. These green chemistry programs aim to find a cleaner way to manufacture popular products, and reduce the amount of toxic chemicals being leaked into the environment.

In addition to garment makers, manufacturers of washing machines should also be included in this pertinent dialogue. By looking at all of the factors that may be causing this problem (the type and size of machines, how water is filtered by the machines, the makeup of the garment), researchers will have more information in their effort to find a successful solution.

Start by beginning a conversation with those around you. Raising awareness allows for more minds to start contemplating this issue, and what there is to do about it.


Amanda Kohr is a 25-year-old writer and photographer with a penchant for yoga, food, and travel.  She prefers to bathe in the moonlight rather than the sun, and enjoys living in a state of the three C’s: cozy, creative, and curious. When she’s not writing, you can find her driving her VW Bug, looking for the next roadside attraction or family diner. She also roams the internet at