A team of researchers from the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), in the United States, has revealed the results of a study on the plastic microfibers that have polluted our environment since the 1950s, when nylon and polyester garments began to be used.

Research reveals that more than 5.6 million tons of this type of waste, of which approximately half, about 2.9 million tons (equivalent to about 7,000 wool jackets), have ended up in rivers or seas, according to the BBC from the study published in the magazine PLoS.

However, they also noticed that it is more common that these fibers pollute terrestrial environmentsas the wastewater treatment procedure is getting better and better. According to the study, 176,500 tons per year go to a land environment, compared to the 167,000 tons that end up in bodies of water.

Roland Geyer, a fellow at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, says “I hear people saying that the synthetic microfiber problem in laundry will be solved as wastewater treatment works become more widespread. worldwide and are more efficient. But in reality what we are doing is moving the problem from one environmental sector to another“.

14% of plastic is used for clothing

The estimate of the research team determines that the total amount of virgin plastics that have occurred historically is 8.3 billion tons, while the estimate of how much waste of this type ends up in the oceans is eight million.

Approximately 14% of the plastic generated is used to manufacture synthetic fibers which, mainly, constitute the garments from which small threads much finer than a person’s hair come off when washing.

To also know a estimate of the amount of synthetic clothing that has been manufactured in the last 65 years, how it has been used and how it has been cleaned, researchers have taken into account the number of people who have access to a washing machine and how many wash their clothes by hand. They have also introduced among the variables how many of the machines are front loading, which usually release a large load of fibers, and how many are top loading.

In addition, different washing and detergent methods Employees are also important, as each one will shed different amounts of fibers. On the other hand, they took into account shapes the clothes a person wears frequently and with which he dresses very occasionally.

With all these factors, the UCSB expert group concluded that the total number of synthetic microfibers thrown during laundry between 1950 and 2016 was 5.6 million tons, being half of that amount released in the last 10 years alone.

Removal of plastic microfibers

“Large-scale removal of microfibers from the environment is unlikely to be technically feasible or economically feasible, so the focus should be on emission prevention“says the study’s lead author, Jenna Gavigan of the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management.

For Gavigan, “since wastewater treatment plants do not necessarily reduce emissions to the environment, our focus should be on reduce emissions before they enter the wastewater stream“.

For his part, Jamie Woodward, from the Department of Geography at the University of Manchester (United Kingdom) and member of the first research in the United Kingdom that revealed the problem of contamination by microplastics in the region, considers that the solution is to develop better wastewater treatments, design more efficient filters or reduce the use of washing machines.

“Microfibers represent a particular challenge because they escape from treatment plants of wastewater in trillions, even with advanced treatment, “he says, adding that at the moment” a environmentally acceptable level of contamination by microplastics in any environment “.

“This underscores the importance of research aimed at better understand the ecological impact of microfibers, both in terrestrial and aquatic environments. Microplastic pollution is a fact of modern life, it is here to stay and we are only beginning to see the consequences, “he concludes.