Dot tackles your thorniest questions from a perch on her porch.
I’ve been reading about the volume of microplastics in our oceans and waterways, and am concerned about what can be done to reduce my own. Do microplastics affect septic systems? Is there anything I can do to stem the tide of microplastics in the ocean?
–Wash-Ashore, Vineyard Haven
Microplastics are exactly as they sound: microscopic pieces of plastic. Which sounds benign, yes? Don’t be fooled. Microplastics get into our bodies of water when larger plastics break down, and according to UNESCO, proceed to kill roughly a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals annually. And don’t for a second think that we humans are spared this scourge. World Wildlife Fund tells us that we ingest the equivalent of a credit card in plastic each week. We can, of course, blame plastic bags, plastic toys, plastic containers. But, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, an estimated 35 percent of all primary microplastics in the oceans originate from our plastic clothes. Each wash cycle releases about 700,000 microfibres from acrylic and polyester, according to a report in The Guardian, and using the “delicate” cycle is actually worse than the standard cycle. Which means that those comfy yoga pants, made from synthetic fibers, that became your pandemic staple might make it easier for you to breathe, but are, sorry to say it, choking our oceans and those who make it their home.
I can practically hear you saying, “What? How can my yoga pants be murdering seabirds?” Let me explain. Each time you wash clothes made of synthetic fibers, those fibers (which are, essentially, plastic) break down and get flushed out of your machine. If your wastewater goes to a treatment plant via a sewer, most of the microplastics will be captured. For the rest of us on cesspools, aging septic systems, or even the Title 5 systems mandatory for new construction, those microplastics “are definitely prone to clogging it,” says Lindsay Cass, an engineer who helped pioneer a microplastics filtration system while at Montreal’s McGill University. “And it won’t capture all the microplastics, so there will still be a pathway into the environment.”
Don’t feel too smug, sewer users: According to Cass, with so many microplastics being released, even a high success rate of removal still leads to high contamination rates. France plans to require filters on washing machines by 2025 and the EU, UK, Australia, and California are considering a similar requirement. But who needs a government order to save our sea creatures (and us!)?
You can install a filter yourself. Thanks to a pilot project on Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay, the first in North America to tackle microplastics from washing machines by installing filters, we know that these retrofit filters work. Researchers installed filters on washing machines belonging to roughly 10 percent of the population hooked up to sewers. They hypothesized that if the filters worked, they’d expect to see a 10 percent reduction in microplastics showing up at the wastewater treatment plant. And that’s exactly what happened.
These filters are available for individual purchase — they cost roughly $150 — and fit on the outside of your machine. Look for the Lint Luv-R or Wexco Filtrol. These filters will also reduce lint and other debris, extending the life and efficiency of your washing machine, and also, if you have one, your septic system.
The Guppyfriend washing bag, available in the US, cuts the amount of microfibers being released at least in half (some studies found the reduction higher than that) and is a quick, easy, and affordable tactic.
The folks at Georgian Bay Forever suggest other steps to reduce microplastics from your washing habits:
- Wash less frequently
- Use cold water. Early studies indicate cold water keeps fibers intact longer
- Use a front-load washer, which tends to be easier on clothing
Since studies have revealed that we shed half of the microfibers from clothes when we’re wearing them, it’s crucial that we stem this problem at the source — with fabrics. Fortunately, there are innovations happening in that arena too, The Guardian piece tells us, with biodegradable yarn being made from kelp, fibers from the byproducts of orange juice production in Italy, and textiles produced from a protein released in the tentacles of squid. As always, demand better of manufacturers and, when they produce it, support them.