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Matt Simon is a science reporter at Wired magazine. He is the author of “A Poison Like No Other: How Microplastics Corrupted Our Planet and Our Bodies”. This column was produced by Progressive Perspectives, which is run by The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.
An environmental crisis is brewing in your washing machine.
We all know about macroplastic pollution – the big stuff like soda bottles that litters our streets and parks. But microplastic pollution – which scientists define as particles smaller than 5 millimeters – has spread like a plague across planet Earth.
When you wash a load of clothes made from synthetic fabrics, like polyester and nylon, millions of tiny fibers break off and spill out into the environment. The land, the sea and the air are now saturated with these plastic microfibers. This is in addition to other sources of microplastics like car tires, paint chips, cigarette butts and fragmented macroplastics.
Once the wastewater has flowed to a treatment facility, approximately 10% of the plastic microfibers are discharged into water bodies. Since 1950, the microfiber equivalent of 7 billion fleece jackets has polluted water bodies. And by 2050, washing machines will release 1.5 billion pounds of microplastics every year.
Evidence shows that these particles are extremely harmful to ocean life, as small animals like fish larvae mistake them for food, filling their bellies and diminishing their appetites, or they choke on the fibers outright. A liter of seawater can now contain thousands of microplastics; even the sediments of the Mariana Trench – the deepest place in the ocean – are infested.
The remaining 90% of microfibers in wastewater are sequestered in “sludge,” the human waste that is spread on cropland as fertilizer. This means that we apply concentrated microplastics to the food we eat. These particles are very toxic to earthworms and other organisms that keep the soil healthy. And when the ground dries up, the winds scatter the microfibers into the atmosphere, where they blow around the world. According to a study, the equivalent of billions of plastic bottles could fall each year in the United States in the form of microplastics.
What this means for human health, scientists are only beginning to explore. But studies find microplastics in our blood, lungs, intestines and placentas. They are even in the first stool of newborns, so mothers pass the particles to their children in the womb. This is of particular concern given the number of endocrine disrupting chemicals in microplastics. Even in very small doses, these contaminants have serious implications for human development.
Our clothes are a major source of these particles: two-thirds of clothes are now made of synthetic fibres. We have removable lint filters on our dryers, which prevent lint from building up and catching fire. But we don’t have microfiber filters on our washing machines, at least not yet. France is leading the way with new regulations, requiring all machines to have pre-installed filters by 2025.
We need the same kind of law in all other countries. Every government should distribute free microplastic filters to its citizens to address this environmental emergency. Keep in mind governments were handing out heaps of stimulus checks during the pandemic and shipping COVID-19 tests right to our doorsteps. Distributing washing machine filters would be cheaper than these investments – about $50 per household.
The United States has about 100 million washing machines, which would represent about 5 billion dollars. Heck, if a billionaire really wanted to save the world, he’d foot the bill on his own. It’s a small price to pay to reduce microplastic pollution, which is best stopped at the source.
As the production of plastics increases exponentially, the concentration of microplastics also increases. Nowhere on Earth is spared, making this an unprecedented environmental crisis. By fitting microfiber filters to as many washing machines as possible, we can at least stop the flow of microplastics into our environment – and our bodies.