Microfibers: The Biggest Little Problem You’ve Never Heard Of

We’ve all heard about the trash “islands” in the ocean like the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch. But what if we told you that there is a much bigger but also much, much smaller trash problem facing our oceans?

Queue Sam Athey and her fascinating campaign, The Microfiber Pollution Project. Their motto? “Microfiber pollution is the 'biggest little problem you've never heard of'.” SeaBlue Collective recently had the honor of sitting down (er, “zooming” down?) with Sam over a panel between SeaBlue vendors and EverBlue scientists.

While some of Sam’s research is pretty scary (those trash islands we’ve all heard about? They’re just the croutons atop the trash soup of microfibers filling our oceans), she also had some encouraging points to make. Here are the basics:

Microfibers Are Everywhere:

The more attention microfibers get, the more places we seem to discover them. We’re talking everywhere from the bottom of the ocean to the top of Mount Everest to your very own lungs!

While microfibers are especially prevalent in seawater, Sam says a common misconception is that if you don’t live near the ocean, you can’t be part of the ocean pollution problem. The science says otherwise. Sure - maybe your land-locked litterbug cousin can’t physically throw her old panties into the ocean. Still, the microfibers those panties produce during each wear, wash and dry cycle can travel through hundreds of miles of watershed drainage (and even float long distances via air!)… and eventually make it into the ocean.

If you think sea turtles choking on plastic straws is compelling, wait until you see the poor zooplankton snacking on your cousin’s dirty panty microfibers. Oh - and then as those microfibers break down into nanoplastics (0.0001 mm bits, according to Sam) pretty soon that delicious wild Atlantic salmon you love is full of your cousin’s old underwear. Gross. (To save Sam her scientific dignity, this specific example is 100% from our imagination, and is in no way endorsed by her.)

Textiles Are Top Offenders

With every load of laundry, tens of thousands of microfibers sluff off of your clothes.

While polyester gets a bad rap thanks to the microplastics it sheds, Sam warns that ALL clothing sheds fibers. She warns that even your oh-so-conscious “natural” garments made from materials like cotton are often modified chemically, produced with additives, or covered with coatings. In fact, Sam recently published a study calling out blue jeans - a worldwide favorite - for their major role in introducing tiny, harmful fiber bits into our environment.

Let’s pick on Europe for a second: A 2013 study estimated that Europe’s laundry habits (estimated at 35.6 billion loads/year) sent 12,709 tons of microfibers into rivers and the ocean in one year alone. Think about how light the lint in your dryer trap is… imagine how much volume you would need to make up over twelve tons of that stuff! (For perspective: the largest animal on the planet, the Blue Whale, is only 200 tons)

Now, before you consider joining a nudist colony or banning laundry in your household, first try our quick and easy solutions to tackling your personal microfiber footprint:

Ten Tips for Minimizing Microfibers:

1. Wash Less Often

It's simple math - less washes equal less microfibers released. Plus, there are so many better ways to spend your time than by doing laundry! (Shout out to Iaera surf!)

2. Select the Cold Cycle

Not only does cold water incite less fiber shedding than warm water, but it also lowers your energy usage… and your bill!

3. Select the Short Wash

A). less time sloshing around = less microfibers sloughed off and B). less time doing laundry = less time wasted on laundry.

4. Use Less Water

A greater clothes-to-water ratio also means less sloshing around, and therefore less microfibers released. Be realistic, though. Remember overstuffing the coin-op machine in college? Yeah. No.

5. Go For Front Loading Machines

Studies show that the front-loading design does the best job trapping microfibers.

6. Get Yourself a Cora Ball

These little guys use biomimicry technology to trap about 30% of the microfibers shed in each cycle. They’re also adorable, available on SeaBlue, and require very little extra work - throw them in and go. ....Or a Guppyfriend- like the Cora Ball, these microfiber trapping bags offer an easy fix.

7. Install a Washing Machine Filter

Your dryer has a lint trap that helps divert microfiber release, so why not your washer? Studies show filters can trap nearly 90% of the microfibers released during washing.

8. Buy Durable

When you shop, pay attention to materials and construction before you buy. Durable, tight weave fabrics generally micro-pollute less. SeaBlue member Pragmatist is a great example.

9. Go Retro, Baby

The more wash cycles a garment goes through, the less it sheds over time. Hello up-cycling, thrifting, clothes-swapping and raiding your best friend’s closet!

10. Get Political

California’s bill to pilot microfiber filtration in washing machines is just one example of how a little political will could curtail a lot of microfibers.

Consider the big picture

Lastly, Zoom Out:

Rather than individual households, manufacturing (particularly the textile industry) contributes to the vast majority of microfiber pollution. As Sam explains, “Responsibility is often placed on consumers when it comes to microfibers. But it’s not just the washing and drying in the home. Textiles is one of the most polluting industries on the planet… fibers are also part of that contamination.” So, don’t beat yourself up about your Sunday laundry routine. Industry and government have a long way to go, and if you’re going to hold yourself accountable for your own contributions, then you definitely are justified in holding the big dogs accountable, too.

At SeaBlue, we’re all about buyer power and this is a perfect example. One of the most powerful impacts you can make as an individual is choose your clothing wisely. Vote with your wallet, as they say. Sam says textile design plays an important role in durability and resistance to fiber release over time, so choosing well-designed long-lasting garments is key. Many of the companies we work with are responding to this very consumer demand, so check out the fabrics they choose while you shop.

Last, don’t get so wrapped up in micro-land that you forget the big picture: Microfibers research may be her focus, but Sam also makes this great point:


“Don’t zero-in on microfibers - there’s a great big world out there of pesticides, water usage issues, human rights issues… even if your new jacket sheds some in the wash, maybe your conscious choice is in another area.”