Plankton will eat anything, including plastic, and that’s a problem. According to a February YouTube video
posted by Vox
, you should worry since our laundry negatively affects food.
A 2013 World Apparel Fibre Consumption Survey reported that by 2010, synthetic fibers — like polyester, nylon, and acrylic — made up 60 percent of our clothing. Since these fabrics are made from plastic, when we do laundry, it has the scary potential of releasing hundreds of thousands of plastic fibers into the water. These microplastics — tiny pieces of plastic, or objects smaller than five millimeters — are ruining our habitats.
When we wash something like a fleece jacket, whose fuzzy material is made up of tiny plastic strands, the fabric is pulled loose and tiny microfibers fall out. Since there’s no mesh screen to filter them out, like in the dryer, everything falls off our clothes and is flushed down the drain. Even if they flow through a sewage treatment plant, the filters are too large to stop all the tiny plastic fibers making their way to the ocean, where plankton and other filter feeders feed eat them. The plastic particles then make their way up the food chain, moving from sea predators to humans who consume them.
“Microfibers are the tiny strands of material shed during textile production, use and disposal,” says Nick Mallos, director, Trash Free Seas Program, Ocean Conservancy. “While they may seem innocuous, microfibers have actually become one of the most commonly detected types of microplastic debris in water samples, found in headwater streams, rivers, soils, lakes, sediments, ocean water, the deep sea, Arctic sea ice, seafood, table salt, and most recently, public drinking water.” He notes that we still don’t know the full effects of ingesting microplastics, but that widespread exposure is cause for concern and more research is needed into the potential consequences of wildlife and human health.
Plastic-based fabrics first became popular in the 40s, according to Vox
, since they are so comfy, versatile, and cheap to make. But therein lies the problem for our oceans. “Plastic was only invented a little more than a hundred years ago, and plastic in the ocean has been an issue for about as long,” says Mallos.
“In the last ten years, we have learned the total amount of plastic in our ocean — over 150 million metric tons — but we still don’t know where much of that is located.” While the science on microplastics is rapidly evolving, there’s still a lot of unknowns about plastic’s effect on marine and human life. “Meanwhile, plastic production and consumption are predicted to double in the next ten years,” he warns. “The long-term solution to plastic in our ocean is to transform the role that plastic plays in the worldwide economy.”
Easier said than done. That requires far more effort and awareness than there already is, because although people are starting to care more and do something about it, eliminating single-use plastic like straws and plastic bags is only a small percentage of this alarming problem.
“Every year, 8 million metric tons of plastic enters our ocean,” says Mallos. “From the tiniest plankton to the largest whales, plastics impact more than 800 marine species.” He’s optimistic though. “The good news is that the general public has never been more attuned to the problem. As stories of the effects of ocean plastic become more and more common, there are also more and more stories about people taking action to combat the problem, including in the yachting community.”
While Mallos understands that there’s no one way to fix the ocean plastic problem, he also thinks that’s no excuse. “I believe we can walk and chew gum at the same time; we can take individual actions and hold ourselves accountable, while also working towards change on a large scale.”
To do your part on board: Use filter bags, which trap microfibers before they fall off into the washing machine. Buy smaller quantities of synthetic clothes, or at least wash them less often. If you’re willing to pay more, switch to silk, wool, or hemp; you can also add a filter to your washing machine.
Beyond that, Mallos says yacht crew are in a unique position to lead others in ocean stewardship. “Ocean Conservancy has developed a guide on just that, called the Good Mate program,” Mallos says.
Crew should also be hyperaware of what is on their boat and to prevent anything from getting into the ocean, such as straws, wrappers, and other lightweight plastic items. “This also means ensuring cigarettes are properly disposed of, and not tossed into the water, as they contain a plastic filter and are consistently the most commonly collected item during Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup each year.”
If you’d like to learn more about what Ocean Conservancy does to save the planet, join them at their annual International Coastal Cleanup. Since 1986, volunteers have collected more than 300 million pounds of trash from beaches and waterways around the world. You can get involved by joining a cleanup near you or starting your own cleanup — visit www.oceanconservancy.org
to learn more.
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