The food chain is an ordered series of organisms, each dependent on the previous as a source of food. In other words, herbivores eat plants to survive and carnivores eat herbivores and other carnivores. In the water, small fish eat plankton, and are then eaten by slightly larger fish, finally eaten by larger fish and then potentially ending up on your dinner plate.
This process has fed the planet from the beginning of time and isn’t changing anytime soon. However, what’s finally ending up on your plate is far different than it was just 70 years ago. As the Earth’s human population has grown and expanded, so have the innovations brought to market by manufacturers and large agrichemical businesses.
Unfortunately, a large portion of those innovations were developed without considering how they would impact the environment and ultimately human life. Permutations and modifications to manufacturing and agribusiness occurs at speeds far greater than safety testing can accommodate.
One consequence of material product transformation was the development of plastics, believed to be nearly indestructible. However, it wasn’t long after the invention of the first synthetic polymer in the early 1900s that we discovered just how false this belief is.
Expedition to Record Volume of Plastic and Its Impact on the Food Chain
Following multiple research studies, environmental assays and the work of activists across the world who discovered our bodies are slowly becoming contaminated with plastic, a group of scientists set out to determine exactly how large the problem of plastics has become in the world’s oceans.
The research voyage, named the “eXXpedition” in reference to an all-female 14 person crew of scientists, writers and activists, is intent on determining how plastics in the ocean are impacting marine life and the rest of the planet.
The crew mans a 72-foot vessel named the Sea Dragon that launched from Hawaii and traversed part of the Pacific North Pacific gyre known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The samples the crew collect will help scientists understand how plastics may pick up other pollutants and transfer them through the food chain.
Founder of the eXXpedition, ocean activist and sailor, Emily Penn, talks about how overwhelming sailing into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was, now two times the state of Texas:1
“When we sailed into the southern edge of the Gyre, we started to see a piece of plastic over the side of the boat every 10 seconds — a cigarette lighter, a bottle, some sort of container.
Then when you wake up the next morning, and it’s still going, and wake up seven days later, and it’s still going, and you’re 800 miles from the nearest human being — it’s that relentlessness that’s just so overwhelming.”
During the voyage, the crew collects samples of plastic from the air, water and the ocean floor to be analyzed in several labs across the world. Samples collected off the coast of Hawaii were photographed by National Geographic Explorer David Liittschwager.2 He commented on what was collected and photographed, saying, “To me, it’s a little shocking how much is in relatively small samples.”
He spread the content on trays to photograph the contents up close, revealing images so dense it is sometimes difficult to discern what was plastic and what was living. While moved by these images of plastic obscuring nature for the past two decades, Liittschwager describes his mission as simply to document what’s real and present today, saying, “I’d like people to see what’s really there.”
Liittschwager has a history of being curious about nature. Almost 10 years ago he set about to find how many creatures would pass through a 12-inch square area in different environments on land and water, and across different temperature regions.
In total, he and a team of biologists recorded more than 1,000 individual organisms in this small area, speaking to the diversity of each environment.3 This diversity is in danger as he records the early death of albatross chicks after ingesting plastics, plankton and small fish intertwined with microplastics. A team even found plastics labeled from Japan off a remote coast of Canada.
Airborne Plastic Fibers in Marine Environments From Washing Clothes
In one sample from the trip, the team counted more than 500 pieces of microplastic. This extrapolates to half a million pieces in 1 square kilometer (a little over a half-mile) of open sea. However, this is not the total number, as the team did not account for nanoparticles showing up at the lab under a microscope. The Sea Dragon is also packed with samples of ocean air to be analyzed at King’s College London.
The crew found airborne microfibers, which may pose a risk to the human respiratory system, are the result of washing clothes, allowing microfiber to enter the ocean through the sewage system. Sarah Dudas, biologist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, states, “Out of all the plastic particles we found, most of them are textile based”4 — tiny filaments of fabric from clothing made from nylon and polyester.
Much of this pollution is being driven by “fast fashion,” or cheap clothing, which some estimate is the fifth most polluting industry in the world. Although sales of clothing are at an all-time high, utilization has dramatically diminished. This essentially means that while sales have doubled from 50 billion to 100 billion units, the average number of times a garment is worn has significantly dropped.
Unfortunately, the cost of clothing and manufacturing has resulted in treating clothes as a single-use disposable item, creating a rapidly-growing waste problem. Chief among those issues is the use of microfibers that shed in your washing machine.
In one study5 commissioned by apparel maker Patagonia, data revealed a synthetic jacket may release up to 2.7 grams of microfiber with each washing. On average a garment released 1.7 grams, while older jackets released twice as much.6
Wastewater treatment plants are able to filter out just a portion of this debris and the rest inevitably sneaks through, ending up in waterways and eventually the ocean.
The irregular shapes of microfiber pollution make it harder for marine life to excrete than other types of microplastics, contributing to physical blockage in their intestinal tract and chemical poisoning, as the longer the particles stay inside, the more chemicals accumulate in the body.
This may also have ramifications for humans who eat the fish. Researchers have found nearly 25 percent of fish and 33 percent of shellfish purchased at fish markets in California and Indonesia had microfibers in their gut.7
Microfibers Act to Super Concentrate Contaminants
Once in the waterways, the bits of microfibers attract and hold other environmental pollutants, since the plastic is lipophilic. This means they attract oil-based chemicals, such as flame retardants, bisphenols and phthalates.
According to Rolf Halden, director of the Center for Environmental Health Engineering at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, plastics can concentrate these contaminants up to 100,000fold.8
In theory, the plastics may then carry these pollutants to the next creature up the food chain, potentially landing on your dinner plate. You can find plastics in virtually every area of your household, including containers, baby items, electronics and personal care products. As they are discarded, they are literally choking our oceans and polluting our food supply.
Different types of washing machines will release different amounts of microfibers and chemicals from a piece of clothing. Data finds top-loading machines release about 530 percent more than front loading machines.9 Up to 40 percent of microfibers are flushed out of wastewater treatment plants and end up in the surrounding lakes, rivers and eventually the ocean.10
To address this problem, scientists call for appliance companies to consider the addition of filters to catch microfibers. In the meantime, several companies offer products for your washing machine aimed at curbing the release of microfibers from your home.11
In a study led by researchers from the University of Barcelona,12 data quantifies the presence of microfibers on marine floors from the Caribbean Sea to the Black Sea. The results revealed the main types of microfiber were natural cellulose (cotton and linen) and regenerated cellulose (rayon), while polyester was the most common synthetic fiber found.
Anna Sánchez Vidal, lead researcher from a consolidated research group from the University of Barcelona, in collaboration with the University of Plymouth in the U.K., highlights the results of the study, saying:13
“Recent results show ingests of microplastics by different organisms and in different ecosystems, but the specific impact on the organisms is unknown.
It can depend on a wide range of factors, such as features of the microfibers (size, abundance), or chemical substances these absorbed as well as the physiology and ecology (size, feeding, whether they excrete or accumulate, etc.) of marine organisms.”
Clothes Are Polluting the Food Supply
Manufacturing modifications and innovations are approved for market release without analysis of their impact on the environment, including human health. It is realistic and urgent to stop these “advancements” since new variations increase the risk the challenge to health is only getting worse.14
Microfibers start by being dumped into rivers and lakes. Sherri Mason, Ph.D., is a chemistry expert at State University of New York Fredonia. The first time she cut open a fish from the Great Lakes, she reports being alarmed by the number of synthetic fibers that seemed to be “weaving themselves into the gastrointestinal tract.”15
The size of microfibers makes them easy to be consumed by fish and the plastic has the potential to bioaccumulate, concentrating toxins higher up the food chain. Although companies like Patagonia and Polartec use recycled bottles to conserve and reduce waste, breaking plastic bottles into millions of fibrous bits of plastic may prove worse than doing nothing at all.
Mason finds plastic microfibers are found in freshwater and saltwater and they are the most common type of debris in smaller bodies of water. Her concern extends to the ability of the microfibers to absorb persistent organic pollutants and concentrate them an animal tissue.16
One of Halden’s concerns is how these tiny pieces of plastic pollution can potentially cross into human tissue and embed in organs, theoretically delivering a toxic payload over many years.17
Sustainable Fashion Is Within Reach
According to BBC investigative reporter Stacey Dooley, reporting in the BBC documentary “Fashion’s Dirty Secrets,” fashion is second only to oil on the list of top five most polluting industries in the world.
You have the opportunity to help fix this system by selecting organic fabrics, refusing to participate in “fast fashion” and only buying clothes you truly need and will wear for a long time. Although sometimes referred to as “retail therapy,” the effect of buying new clothes to help you feel relaxed and, perhaps, prettier or popular, lasts only a short time, while the pollution generated lasts a lifetime.
The results of the study from the University of Barcelona found cotton microfibers had the highest concentration on the ocean floor. Adding insult to injury is the effect nonorganic cotton has on the environment as it relates to the devastating impact on freshwater supplies.
The use of pesticides, dyes and chemicals and the immense amount of water needed to produce and process cotton further adds to the enormity of the problem. For more information about “fast fashion,” the impact on your health and strategies you may use to make a difference, see “Top 7 Ways to Support Sustainable Fashion.”