Microplastics, from washing machines to the Arctic

The vast majority of the microplastics found in the Arctic Ocean come from synthetic fibers used for clothing and probably ended up in its waters after passing through washing machines in North America and Europe, according to a study published Tuesday.

The presence of microplastics in living organisms has been detected in all the world’s oceans, including the Mariana Trench, the deepest depression in the world located in the Pacific.

These particles come from the degradation of some 8 million tons of plastic that each year end up in the oceans, partly coming from synthetic textiles such as polyester, nylon and acrylic.

According to the scientists, with each machine wash, hundreds of thousands of microfibers slip through the evacuation circuit and some, those that are too small to be filtered by the treatment plants, reach the sea.

In a study published by the journal Nature Communications, the Ocean Wise organization and the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans studied seawater samples taken in 2016 at 71 stations in the Arctic areas, from Norway to northern Alaska, passing through Canada and the North Pole.

“We found microplastics in all but one sample, demonstrating the massive presence of this contaminating element in these remote regions,” said lead study author Peter Ross of Ocean Wise and the Canadian University of British-Columbia.

92% of the microplastics studied, smaller than 5 mm in size, came from synthetic fibers similar to those used for clothing, of which 73% were polyester.

– Ecological clothes and washes with filters –

“The bottom line is that we now have significant evidence that European and North American households directly pollute the Arctic with these fibers that come from the wastewater from their washing machines,” according to Ross.

Although the exact mechanism that causes this concentration in the Arctic areas is unknown, ocean currents appear to play an important role in their drift north, Ross estimates.

In the eastern parts of the Arctic, three times as many residues were detected, suggesting a more important origin from the Atlantic.

“It would be unfair to point out textiles as the only source of these microplastics, but we detected a strong presence of polyester fibers, probably coming from a large part of clothing,” Ross reaffirms.

In a study published in 2019, Ocean Wise estimated that the average household in the United States or Canada generated 533 million microfibers a year. And although 95% of these are intercepted during wastewater treatment, 878 tons end up in the sea.

“The textile sector can do more to make clothing more sustainable,” concludes Ross, also urging governments to strengthen legislation on water treatment and individuals to adopt measures such as the use of filters for washing machines and the carrying of more ecological garments.


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