The TEA on Microplastics

Posted on: October 10, 2019

There has been a big push in the last few years to ban things with microbeads in them. Microbeads are a form of microplastic and the soaps and face washes that contain them wash the small plastic grains right down the drain. Now ya girl here likes the turtles and the fish, and I do what I can to avoid those unnecessary plastics in my life, so imagine my discomfort on discovering that a few of my favourite things are microplastics-releasing machines!

Why are microplastics villainized?

When we think about plastic and water, thoughts tend to go to a giant gyre of plastic parts in the middle of the ocean, swirling about and killing fish or whales or dolphins… pick your player. It’s true that large mammals are consuming plastic pieces (which of course is terrible) but the plastics out in the oceanic gyre are eviscerating big plastics into smaller ones. It takes a long time, but eventually those plastics are broken down into microfibres which trickle up through the food chain and eventually end up on our plates.

Every plastic is composed of melded microplastics. They’re the building blocks of the Lego that holds society together, if you allow. You don’t notice microplastics on a daily basis (not least because they are microscopic) because you aren’t generally trying to break up your plastic possessions into their constituent micro particles. But you may be encountering them more than you think. Polarfleece, yoga pants, microfibre cloths (I guess I should have seen that one coming) and “silky” teabags are all microplastic culprits.

But are microplastics actually bad? What do they do? To tell the truth, no one knows. There haven’t been enough studies to understand what microplastics do to humans and animals, if anything. I mean, it’s probably not good to consume a lot of them but beyond that the research just isn’t there. One thing that has been proven is that microplastics attract and concentrate chemical pollutants present in the water and when ingested, these toxins can enter an animal’s organs.

Where are they coming from?

Synthetic clothing and textiles are the 21st century’s miracle material. They’re great at wicking sweat, keeping you cozy, and picking up dust. Unfortunately, what the ocean does on a macro scale your washing machine does even more efficiently. One fleece jacket can release up to 250,000 fibres per load of laundry; with other materials also releasing microplastics in the wash, we’re creating a big mess that we don’t have the infrastructure to clean up. The fibres are now in our rivers and lakes as well as our oceans and it’s ending up in our drinking water, too.

In addition to your clothes, a new study has come out of McGill about those fancy triangular teabags. Made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) or nylon fibres, these teabags break down when in contact with hot water and release well over a billion particles of plastic per cup of tea! What the fibres do to the drinker is unknown, but probably directly consuming them is not a great idea. Also, these teabags are not compostable like the paper ones, so they’re just garbage after you steep your tea and we shouldn’t be making things that should be compostable into garbage.

What can I do?

Personally, I rely on petroleum-based fabrics for sports, camping, and cleaning my house, and there’s no way I’m going to throw away my overpriced Patagonia sweater just because of this news. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to. Firstly, and most useful really, is to wash your stuff less! Really, you don’t need to wash your clothing all that much. Yes, when you get back from camping and everything smells of fire, you probably want to wash it. But with daily use you aren’t getting sweaters dirty enough to require weekly washes. Even shirts can be worn more than once or twice per wash, even if you exercised in it! The next best thing is to stop buying synthetic fabrics. I know that’s not always possible to do but you can try to make conscious purchasing choices. If you need to toss a piece of clothing or a microfibre cloth, try to replace it with a natural fibre option. Bamboo is especially good because it is a very sustainable resource.

So, what’s my take? Conscious consumerism and smelly is okay! Everything releases microfibres, so being aware and doing what you can to mitigate your impact on the problem is the best thing you can do! Think and do something green and I’ll talk to you in the next issue of Leafy Thoughts.

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