Researchers found “pervasive” amounts of microplastic, particularly polyester fibers, in samples taken from 71 different sites in the Arctic Ocean, according to a study published Tuesday in the science journal Nature Communications.
The researchers collected samples in 2016 and then worked to identify the recovered microplastics using infrared spectronomy and other methods. Because of environmental wear and tear, many of the plastic pieces were heavily degraded, making it hard to trace them back to a source, but the polyester fibers in particular were easier to analyze.
And their abundance points to fast fashion.
Fashion brands have long incorporated plastic fibers into t-shirts, sweaters, leggings, hats, and more to cut costs. These fibers can improve the flexibility and comfort of clothing, while also making them more affordable, but those savings are mostly offset to the environment.
In addition to clothing manufacturers polluting water sources and the air and consuming enormous amounts of fossil fuels, garments made with plastic fibers break down quickly and are hard to recycle. As a result, they mostly get sent to landfills or incinerators when people try to recycle them
Every time a piece of clothing made with plastic goes through washing and drying cycles, it sheds tens of thousands of microplastics into wastewater and through exhaust fumes.
The average citizen in the US and Canada releases 533 million microfibers of plastic into the environment each year.
These microplastics are carried into rivers and along currents of air, where they contaminate land and marine ecosystems, endangering wildlife in the process. Microplastics have been found in the most remote regions of the planet and pervade the food and water we consume on a daily basis.
The presence of so many microplastics in the Arctic shows the scope of global contamination. It’s unclear what effect microplastic pollution has on humans, but it’s been shown to cause illness and contribute to death in animals.
The researchers noted that the plastic fibers found in the Arctic largely came via the Atlantic Ocean, either carried by wind or water currents.
The only way to stop microplastic fibers from contaminating the Arctic is for companies to stop relying so heavily on plastic fibers and for the fashion industry to shift away from fast fashion to circular modes of production.
In the meantime, everyday people can do their part by buying less clothes, buying clothes that are made with organic materials, and washing and drying clothes less frequently.