Microplastics and Clothing

Are you contaminating our water with microplastic pollution from clothing?

What are microplastics?

Plastic debris can be found in many forms, sizes, and shapes. Microbeads are polyethylene plastic pieces found in cleaning and beauty products, and have been banned in Wisconsin since 2015 (O’Brien 2015). However, plastic pieces smaller than 5mm in length are considered microfibers or microplastics. Longer, thinner strands of plastic are released when clothing items are washed. They are so small that they often make it past sewage treatment filtration systems and pollute waterways. If your wastewater is going to a municipal sewage treatment facility, you are likely contaminating surface waters with microplastics.

Why are microplastics a problem for the environment?

Synthetic microfibers, including microplastics, can easily be consumed by fish and other wildlife due to their small size. Many microfibers have been shown to cause toxicological effects in individual organisms (UCSB). This means that any aquatic wildlife consuming these tiny fragments could be negatively impacted. They may also pass the fibers up the food chain through biomagnification when they are consumed by larger animals. Bioaccumulation is a pollutant’s concentration increasing from the environment to the first organism in a food chain, which is the initial introduction of microplastics into the aquatic environment. Biomagnification is the increase in concentration of the pollutant as it moves through organisms higher up in the food chain. Eventually, the largest fish and other wildlife in aquatic systems contain huge concentrations of these plastics, causing debilitating illnesses and deformations. Nanoplastic particles have also been found lodged in the brains of fish and were shown to affect their behavior.

Why is this a problem for humans?

Humans consume tons of aquatic wildlife every day, so we need to be careful about what is going into our bodies. If toxins build up in large fish, crabs, shrimp, and other seafood, those same toxins are then passed on to the human body. Biomagnification applies to humans as well; if we eat multiple contaminated fish, the toxin level in our bodies rises to dangerous levels. Microplastics have been shown to absorb toxic chemicals and later release them into the digestive system, causing immense health issues. Evidence has also been found that nanoplastics could be toxic and may be able to travel through the intestinal wall during digestion. It remains unclear whether these particles then go on to enter the bloodstream.

How plastics enter the food web


Where do microplastics come from?

Effluent from wastewater treatment plants has been found to be the main source of microplastic pollution in fresh waterways and oceans. Microfibers are released into the wastewater and travel to treatment plants. These fibers are so tiny that they bypass filtration systems and flow out from plants in “clean water” to the oceans. Most recent data from a study sponsored by Patagonia show that synthetic fleece jackets are releasing 1.7 grams of microfibers each time they are washed. The study, done by UC Santa Barbara researchers, also found that older jackets can shed about twice as many fibers as new jackets.

Could clothes made from recycled plastic be the solution, or worsen the problem?

Some outdoor companies such as Patagonia and Polartec have implemented waste-reduction and conservation efforts in the form of using recycled plastic bottles in their clothing. The process of turning plastic bottles into clothes begins with breaking them down into tiny fibers so they can be made into fabric. The plastic fibers from recycled clothing are later released in the washing process just the same as other clothes. This pollutes waterways and oceans with more of the same plastics, just in smaller pieces. Microplastics are actually an even more problematic waste form for bodies of water than the original bottle because the tiny particles are more easily consumed by aquatic wildlife.

What types of clothes contribute the worst?

Synthetic fibers and recycled-plastic garments are the worst offenders when it comes to releasing microplastics during washing. Any synthetic fabric such as nylon, polyester, and spandex are made with some kind of man-made plastic that will be leached out when the garment is washed. Natural textiles are made from vegetable, animal, or mineral origin materials. These plastic-free fabrics like wool, silk, cotton, and linen are natural alternatives to synthetic textiles that do not release microplastic fibers when laundered.

What can we do to help?

The biggest way that consumers can help reduce this problem is to avoid purchasing clothing made of synthetic fibers. Choose natural textiles such as cotton or linen and avoid recycled-plastic clothing when possible. If you already own of clothing made from synthetic materials, try using these tips to reduce the amount of microplastic pollution coming from your washing machine:

  • Use liquid laundry soap, as powdered ones release more microfibers
  • Skip fabric conditioner or use vinegar instead
  • Wash in cold water; heat damages fabrics and releases more fibers
  • Reduce the rotation speed on the washing machine
  • Wash clothes less often and wait to do laundry until you have a full load

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© Clean Water Action Council

P.O. Box 9144

Green Bay, WI 54308

(920) 421-8885

Office location:
A307 MAC Hall, UW-Green Bay
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Green Bay, WI 54311