"Unless the flow of plastics and industrial pollution into the world's oceans is reduced, marine life will be poisoned by them for many centuries to come."
~Sir David Attenborough in Blue Planet II
Oceans are vital for life on our planet
Ocean organisms produce more than half of all the oxygen in our atmosphere, more than all land plants together. They regulate the world’s climate by containing sun heat, producing precipitation, and keeping global temperature in balance through the movement of their currents. They are the world’s largest source of protein.
And our oceans are facing dire threats
The oceans absorb half of man-made carbon emissions, which causes changes in their chemical composition; this process is known as ocean acidification. Simultaneously with the increase in the ocean’s temperature, sea levels are rising and extreme weather events are becoming more and more frequent.
The fish populations cannot keep up with our growing global demand for fish. It is estimated that over 70% of the world’s fish species are either depleted or exploited to the maximum. There has been a 90% drop in tuna. The ocean is being mined for all life.
Marine pollution comes from sewage, industrial discharge and crude oil but more alarmingly from rubbish. The majority of marine litter comes from land based activities. Each year approximately 1.4 billion pounds of trash go into the ocean and most of it is plastic. Plastic products disintegrate into tiny plastic particles, microplastics, that end up in the seafood we eat. Plastic is literally on the menu. These microplastics have formed large islands of plastics in our oceans. About 10% of the marine litter is abandoned and lost fishing gear. Derelict fishing nets have been called ‘the silent killers in our oceans’ and lead to ‘ghost fishing’ because animals continue to become trapped in these lost nets.
Another source of plastic pollution are microfibers. Man-made clothing shed tiny synthetic fibres when they are washed in washing machines. Because these fibres are so small they pass through the filtering systems of washing machines and sewage treatment plants and end up on our oceans. These tiny bits of plastics act like sponges and attract toxic chemicals. Over 60% of the plastic debris found in the marine environment are from microfibers coming from our clothing. Microfibers found in our oceans can originate from a wide variety of man made textiles.
What is being done and what can we do?
We must be armed with the knowledge that everything that is produced comes at some kind of cost to the environment. We need to find ways to lower these environmental costs.
The first step is to decide to help, to realise that we can all do something however small the step might seem. Become involved in a beach clean up, make wise choices about the seafood we eat.
Charity organizations and clean-up efforts by local groups are recovering fishing nets and fishing lines from the ocean. Instead of being dumped in landfills, the discarded fishing nets are regenerated into new nylon yarn which can be used for swim wear and yoga wear.
Plastic bottles are being prevented from ending up in landfills by being recycled into polyester yarn. This process consumes 30% less energy than conventionally man made fabrics and uses less water than cotton. Cotton is the second highest water consumer of any crop in the world. One pair of yoga leggings requires 25 plastic bottles. Turning used plastic bottles into recycled polyester creates a demand for them, diverting them from landfills, the waste stream, the ground, and from our oceans. Remember to recycle when you do use plastic and use a reusable water bottle and reusable coffee cup to diminish our use of single use plastic.
As for microfibres, research shows the main culprits of microfibre shedding materials are the fluffy ones you might find in outerwear like jackets, (synthetic fleece or acrylics in knit blends) and this is easily dealt with by spot washing these garments instead of machine washing.
There are many other ways you can minimise microfibres escaping into the ocean:
- Choose products that are higher quality as they shed less in the water than low quality synthetic products. Handwash your garments with eco friendly detergent and dispose of the water in your garden
- If machine washing use a front loader (fleeces washed in top loaders are found to shed as 5 times as many microfibers as those washed in front-loaders)
- Use cold water and liquid detergent, there is less friction so less shedding
- Dispose lint from washer of dryer into bin rather than the sink
- Use a Guppy Friend Wash bag (available at Patagonia.com)
When considering alternatives to synthetic clothing, however, it’s important to acknowledge there is no material that does not come with environmental and social costs—only trade-offs. The goal is always to find ways to do less harm.
We can all show our respect to our Earth.