I don't buy clothes very often. In fact, I think I'm still wearing socks I bought in college. Back then, as now, I put a priority on buying clothes made with natural fibers like cotton, wool, and linen. Recently though, I had to restock my sock drawer for the first time in years, and I discovered to my dismay that things have changed. It's hard to find cotton socks! In fact, I couldn't find any socks that weren't made of a cotton/polyester blend at regular clothing outlets. This is bad news for me for all the reasons I've always preferred natural fiber clothing, but it's also bad news for our waterways.
According to a recent article on Civil Eats, research from Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant has revealed that fibers from the plastic-based fabrics many people wear every day are accumulating in lakes, streams, and the oceans, much like plastic microbeads from facial scrubs and other skin care products.
Plastic-based clothing, including polyester and many synthetic fleece and wicking fabrics, breaks down in the washing machine and releases tiny fibers into the water. The fibers are too small to be caught by wastewater treatment filters, so they pass right through from our washers into the wild. It's easy to guess what happens from there: plastic fibers don't break down under natural processes. They persist in the environment. Wildlife consumes the fibers, which may also carry toxins such as DDT that are attracted to the plastics, or the fibers may accumulate and block animals' digestive tracts, eventually killing them. Humans are also at risk, since we eat fish and shellfish that is more likely than ever to be full of plastic.
There's no way for current municipal water-treatment systems, or even home water-treatment technology to filter these plastic fibers from our wastewater. It doesn't seem like any kind of filtering solution is coming soon, either. The most immediate response to this issue is for people to wear and wash only natural fiber clothing, but as my sock buying experience demonstrates, the clothing market isn't very natural-fiber-friendly right now. Maybe we can change that.
I don't want to watch rivers silt up with plastic, or the ocean continue this terrifying transformation into plastic soup, so for me, it's time to take a look at my closet and see where I can cut back or eliminate the plastics in my wardrobe. The next time I need socks, I'll be really picky about what I bring home. And in the meantime, I'll be keeping tabs on where I can find the goods—the all-natural fiber goods—and that's where I'll be shopping.
Erin Gettler is a writer, photographer and naturalist living on Long Island, New York. She likes long walks in the woods, but she's too slow for real hiking on account of stopping to look at every little thing. She travels with a sketchbook, and keeps a spare pair of binoculars to share.