Microfibres are tiny pieces of fibre — less than 5mm in size and thinner than a human hair — that are shed from fabrics when they are washed. Many microfibres are made of synthetic materials and are basically tiny pieces of plastic, but natural materials (like cotton) also shed microfibres when washed.
Did you know that synthetic microfibres from laundry are one of the largest sources of microplastics pollution in the ocean?
Every year, in Canada and the United States, our household laundry sends about 878 tonnes of microfibres — the equivalent weight of ten blue whales — into our rivers, lakes and oceans.
Washing in cold water and other laundry practices can help reduce the amount of microfibres that clothes produce and that end up in the ocean.
As our oceans struggle with the impacts of climate change, let’s give them all the help we can to keep them healthy.
How microfibres harm our environment
Microfibres are so tiny that not all of them can be captured and removed from your household’s wastewater. A lot still end up in the ocean, where they can be harmful to fish and other aquatic life, making their way up the food chain as they get eaten by zooplankton, fish and progressively larger animals.
Ocean Wise has studied how our clothes contribute to microfibres pollution.
Home laundry of textiles releases large amounts of microfibres into the environment every year
Are natural fabrics better?
Are natural fabrics like cotton the solution? Well, it's complicated. All fabrics, whether they are made of synthetic or natural materials, shed fibres when washed.
2019 Ocean Wise study — Me, My Clothes and the Ocean — showed that for synthetic fabrics, polyester sheds the most. Natural fibres like cotton and wool also shed a lot. Many factors determine how much fabrics shed, including how they are made, treated and washed.
Natural fibres may be slightly less harmful than synthetic fibres because they break down faster. Fibres from natural fabrics can still be harmful to our aquatic environment if they have been treated with dyes and toxic chemicals. When you're buying clothing, it is very hard to know whether a certain item has the qualities that would make it shed fewer microfibres and how harmful those microfibres would be.
What is Metro Vancouver doing to address microfibres?
Metro Vancouver is educating residents about how to reduce the amount of microfibres shed in laundry. Metro Vancouver is also part of research initiatives — like
Ocean Wise's Microfiber Partnership and University of British Columbia studies — that are working to better understand the amount of microfibres in our environment and where they are coming from.