The women leading the fight against microplastics

"They can't unsee what they've seen" | By Ruth MacGilp

The women leading the fight against microplastics

We all know that plastic bags, straws and bottles are a major planetary problem: polluting waterways, clogging up beaches and destroying marine life. But the real threat to our oceans lies beneath the surface in microscopic form.

Microplastics are pieces of plastic measuring less than 5mm across. They come from a variety of sources such as car tyres, but also from cosmetics including toothpaste, face wash and even suncream. Astoundingly, one of the largest sources of ocean plastic is clothing, the source of around 35% of all microplastic pollution. Every time we wash our clothes, over 700,000 microfibres are released into our washing machines and tumble dryers and the ocean is their final destination. 65% of new garments are made from synthetic fibres such as polyester, so it’s clear that we’re not just eating, drinking and washing in plastic, we’re wearing it too. These particles emit powerful greenhouse gases as they break down — an even larger future climate change threat that the fashion industry should answer for.

The link between clothing production and microplastic pollution is indisputable, but rarely discussed in the conversation about sustainable fashion

Arguably more sinister than larger pieces of litter that can be visibly measured and removed, microplastics irreversibly slip through water filtration systems, impacting the entire food chain. Aquatic creatures like plankton mistake these tiny, poisonous particles as food, which can eventually impact upon human health too from the seafood we consume, as well as the tap water we drink. The long-term environmental and health effects of microplastics aren’t yet fully understood, but passionate activists from around the world are leading the charge to fill these gaps in scientific knowledge, empowering governments, brands and consumers to drive sustainable change. These women are working tirelessly to research the hidden effects of our single-use plastic and synthetic fabric addiction, shaping policies to help urgently address the mess we’ve made.

The link between clothing production and microplastic pollution is indisputable, but rarely discussed in the conversation about sustainable fashion. Carry Somers, co-founder of Fashion Revolution, has been changing this narrative by expanding the question of #WhoMadeMyClothes to include #WhatsInMyClothes as a key issue for the movement. For Fashion Revolution Week 2020, one of the key messages was that materials really do matter, and as consumers we have the right to learn the real impact of what we wear on the natural world.

Research and results

Earlier this year, Somers set sail from the Galápagos Islands to Easter Island with eXXpedition, the all-female voyage series founded by renowned skipper Emily Penn. eXXpedition aims to explore the impact of microplastics on the ocean while engaging women in discussions about the effects of chemicals like endocrine disruptors and carcinogens. In a heartfelt blog, Somers writes that “we can’t manage what we don’t measure”, pledging to help create the first ever global dataset that includes the estimated 1.4 million trillion textile microfibres in our waters. According to Penn, “the real impact is created back on land from the women who've sailed with us. Having seen the real challenge of microplastics it makes it easier for them to talk about the urgency of the problem … they can't unsee what they've seen, instead they head home and create positive change on the issue."

Arguably more sinister than larger pieces of litter that can be visibly measured and removed, microplastics irreversibly slip through water filtration systems, impacting the entire food chain

While the true extent of microfibres in our oceans is still being studied, viable solutions are raring to go. Dr Imogen Napper, an expedition scientist at National Geographic, is betting on tackling future microfibres at their source by exploring various washing machine innovations. Her recent study at the University of Plymouth identified devices that successfully reduce the amount of fibres released into wastewater by almost 80%, a significant step in reckoning with the environmental impact of what we wear.

Another sector ripe for revolution is beauty, with cosmetics accounting for roughly 2% of microplastic pollution despite years of campaigning to ban products containing microbeads. Women-owned non-profit Plastic Soup Foundation has been at the forefront of this battle with their global campaign Beat The Microbead. Project leader Madhuri Prabhakar wants this platform to demystify the myriad terms found on cosmetic ingredients lists that conceal the truth about toxic plastics, while challenging beauty brands to certify their products with a zero-plastic guarantee. “Both fashion and cosmetics industries are contributors to the microplastic pollution crisis,” Prabhakar says, also commenting that as women tend to dominate consumption of fashion and beauty, “it's not a surprise that women are the ones who are taking charge when it comes to challenging and changing the sustainable practices of these industries.”

Creative Collaborations

It’s plain to see that microplastics are a man-made crisis, an inconvenient truth further highlighted in The Story of Plastic, a new film directed by Deia Schlosberg. The documentary reveals in stark detail the disastrous consequences of plastic pollution poisoning the world’s ecosystems, but also highlights the incredible groundswell of activists responding to this catastrophe.

Individual retailers or researchers can’t fix microplastics in isolation

One of the film’s producers is Dianna Cohen, CEO of the Plastic Pollution Coalition. Cohen has long used visual art as a medium to direct public attention to the urgency of solving the plastic pollution problem, and alongside her sister and co-founder Julia Cohen, has brought together a global alliance of more than 1,200 organisations and business leaders who have pledged to reverse plastic’s toxic impact.

According to Sophie Mather, founding director of the The Microfibre Consortium (TMC), this kind of cross-industry collaboration and knowledge sharing is key to help unlock solutions to microplastic pollution. TMC members include brands, manufacturers and industry bodies, all helping accelerate research to reduce microfibre shedding from textiles throughout the supply chain and product life cycle.

Individual retailers or researchers can’t fix microplastics in isolation, so multidisciplinary groups like these are vital in speeding up the pace of change. “Due to the complexities of this topic, no one organisation alone could reach the level of understanding the consortium can potentially reach in this collective way,” says Mather, who hopes to further solution-based conversations on microfibres with an upcoming industry-wide summit in 2021.

Buying power

As a consumer, one of the best things you can do now to help reduce the prevalence of microfibres in our environment is to simply wash your clothes less. Many of us use washing machines and tumble dryers more often than needed, when usually a spot-clean will do. If a machine wash is necessary, you can also use eco-friendly detergents like Clothes Doctor, switch to lower temperatures and gentler settings, and invest in products that capture microfibres in the cycle like Cora Ball or Guppy Friend. You can also make changes in your beauty buying habits by using the Beat the Microbead brand checker.

Beyond these simple lifestyle shifts, you have the power to support the work of these incredible women by demanding meaningful corporate and policy action. Writing to policymakers is an important first step in pressuring your government to create legislation. For example, France recently enacted a new washing machine filter law. Find details for your policy representative online (for example here if you are in the UK), and let them know you support the European Commission’s proposal on restricting microplastics.

According to the Environmental Audit Committee, “ultimate responsibility for stopping this pollution must lie with the companies making the products”, so another essential individual action is to target the fashion and beauty brands themselves. Email or tweet at your favourite brands, and ask them what they’re doing to prevent microplastic pollution, an issue that you as their valued customer see as a top priority.

In the fight to protect the precious lifeblood of our shared planet from microplastics, we’re at a tipping point, but we have the power now to follow in these women’s footsteps and join the global movement for change.    

Take action:

Watch these films: The Story of Plastic and XTrillion

Sign these petitions: Tell fashion brands to stop microfibre pollution / Tell the EU to ban microplastics in cosmetics / Tell the UK to stop choking the ocean with plastic

Download this app: My Little Plastic Footprint

Featured image by Brian Yurasits  / Unsplash