Plastic pollution in the ocean is a global complication. Plastic concentrations in the ocean reach 580,000 pieces per km2 while production is growing exponentially. (Wilox, Sebille, Hardesty 2015) It is predicted that by 2050 plastic ingestion exposure among seabirds will reach 99%. Since the invention of the first plastic “bakelite” in 1907, many inexpensive manufacturing techniques emerged in the 1940’s allowing for mass production of lightweight, durable, inert and corrosion resistant plastics. In 2014 Americans disposed of about 33.6 Million Tons of plastics with less than 10% being recycled. It is estimated that there is over 165,000 Million Tons of plastic debris already in the ocean. Microplastics are particles less than five millimeters long. They come from cosmetics, fabrics, and the breakdown of larger plastic pieces. In the great Pacific Garbage Patch, plastic pieces outnumber sea life six to one. Plastic constitutes about 90% of all trash on the ocean’s surface, with 46,000 pieces of plastic per mile2. Plastic toxicity kills over 1 million seabirds and over 100,000 marine mammals annually.


One area often overlooked as a pollutant is our clothing. Over 60% of clothing produced are synthetic textiles like polyester, nylon, fleece, spandex and more. When these items are washed they shed tiny plastic fibers. The fibers themselves are much too small to be caught by convention filtration systems or municipal wastewater treatment plans. As a result of the abundance of synthetic clothing being used and a lack of adequate filtration, our waters, and food resources are inundated with these invisible plastics. A single synthetic garment can shed more than 1900 fibers in one wash. Microfibers released from synthetic clothing is the #1 global source of primary microplastics.


The Impact:

Microfibers like microplastics are a similar size to plankton. This poses a large problem because a very wide and varying number of marine species eat plankton via filter feeding. While feeding on plankton these species frequently consume microplastics as well. Because humans rely on the ocean as a major food source, we too are ingesting microplastics. Estimates in recent studies suggest that and the average individual consumption of shellfish can lead to the ingestion of up to 11,000 microplastics annually. Another study found microplastic exposure in 15 brands of table salt for sale in China (Yang et al., 2016). While another study has found that 83% of drinking water globally contains microplastics. (Kosuth et al., 2017)


We are still working to understand the full effect of microplastic consumption, however, microplastics have been shown to absorb, carry, and retain pollutants. (Hankett et al., 2016; Hirai et al.,2011)