Microscopic bits of plastic are ubiquitous in the ocean, and the majority of this microplastic probably sloughed off synthetic fabrics such as fleece jackets during washing, according to new research.
Naomi Lubick writes about the research in Chemical & Engineering News:
Although stories of large chunks of plastic trash trapped in the guts of seabirds are devastating, most plastic pollution in the oceans takes the form of tiny, even microscopic, fragments. In the 1990s, researchers started tracking the amounts of these particles and searching for possible sources, such as the plastic beads used as scrubbing agents in face cleaners and soaps.
Mark Anthony Browne at University College Dublin and his team concluded that the particles likely travel from clothes washer to wastewater treatment plant to the ocean. They analyzed particles found in 18 locations off the coasts of the U.K., Chile, and Dubai. They examined the shapes of the particles. Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy analysis demonstrated that the samples were approximately 75% polyester, and the remainder was polyamide, polypropylene, and acrylic, a composition that matches textiles.
Once they knew the composition, they washed some fleece jackets and synthetic shirts. They discovered that 1,900 tiny fibers could come off a single piece of clothing during one wash cycle, and that the composition of the material they collected from the washer was similar to samples they collected from two wastewater treatment plants in Australia.
Kara Lavender Law, a researcher at the Sea Education Association, a nonprofit organization, told Lubick that she “applauds the researchers’ detective work to pinpoint a possible source of microplastics.” Law adds that spectroscopy data alone isn’t enough to pin down a plastic particle’s source, so analyzing the shapes was critical.
The big question now is, Law told Chemical & Engineering News, “Do animals that ingest these particles actually experience harm, either from the physical harm of swallowing fibers or from the toxicity of compounds in the plastics?”
“What really makes microplastics potentially dangerous is the contaminants they ferry.” That is what Anthony Andrady of North Carolina State University in Raleigh, a polymers specialist not connected with the new study, told Janet Raloff at Science News. “In the ocean, plastics act like a sponge,” he adds, “absorbing and concentrating fat-soluble pollutants.”
Source: “Clothing Sheds Microplastics Into Sea,” Chemical & Engineering News, 9/19/11
Source: “Synthetic lint ends up in oceans,” Science News, 9/14/11
Image by AngelaShupe.com, used under its Creative Commons license.
Rachel Petkewich is a freelance science writer and editor. She has worked as a research scientist in the chemical industry and spent eight years as a staff writer and editor at various science journals and magazines, including Chemical & Engineering News.