Microfiber Pollution is an Environmental Justice Issue

This growing environmental hazard is hurting marginalized communities.

Multicolored clothing visible through the clear front of a white laundry machine.
Mixed clothing in a laundry machine. Photo by Engin Akyurt.

Every time we do our laundry, an average of 9 million microfibers from our clothes are released into our wastewater treatment plants, waterways, and oceans. These tiny plastic fibers, a form of primary microplastic, are a growing threat to our environment and shed during the production, wash, and wear of our clothing. Microfibers are unique due to their linear density of less than 1 denier and shape that makes them easily ingestible by aquatic organisms and yes, you guessed it, humans. Microfibers are also particularly good at absorbing and transmitting persistent organic pollutants (POPs)—also known as “forever chemicals” because there’s no known way to destroy them. While all types of textiles shed fibers, synthetic textiles such as polyester, acrylic, and nylon release plastic microfibers that do not biodegrade in natural environments. A synthetic textile like polyester could take between 20 and 200 years to break down, and even then it will never fully decompose.

Though the topic of microfiber pollution has been gaining attention over the last decade, available research often centers on how it threatens aquatic environments and organisms rather than humans. Let’s first get it out there that we all ingest microplastics (plastics smaller than 5mm) in one way or another, and a 2019 study revealed that humans consume 5 grams of plastic weekly—equivalent to the weight of a credit card. But here’s the important part: microfiber pollution and synthetic textile production are harming low-income populations of color.

An average person ingests approximately 5 grams of plastic per week. The equivalent of one credit card.

Textiles like polyester, nylon, and acrylic do not exist in nature but are manufactured from non-renewable fossil fuels like oil and coal. Because of their lower price points, synthetic textiles also happen to be the main drivers of the fast fashion industry. It has been estimated that 342 million barrels of oil per year are used to meet the demand for synthetic textiles. As such, a significant amount of environmental and human harm occurs before the textiles are even constructed— during the extraction and refinement of oil and coal.

342 million barrels of oil per year are used to meet the demand for synthetic textiles.

The people who live the closest to oil and gas infrastructure, described by the Center for International Environmental Law as “fenceline communities,” are often low-income communities of color. Oil and gas infrastructure also has a history of disrupting sacred Indigenous lands and displacing Indigenous peoples in the United States. Fossil fuels are a dangerous business, with 75% of the 353 chemicals associated with oil and gas production “affecting the skin, eyes, and other sensory organs, the respiratory system, the gastrointestinal system, and the liver.” Exposure to these chemicals, many of them endocrine system disruptors, put children, infants, and pregnant women at a particularly high risk of birth defects and developmental disorders. Fossil fuels are then refined, a process that releases a whole host of other threats on nearby communities and extractive industry employees. The refinement stage releases hazardous chemicals like benzene, toluene, ethane, propylene and propylene oxide, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) into the environment. Many of these chemicals are known carcinogens (chemicals that promote cancer) that are harmful after both short-term and long-term exposure. For example, exposure to toluene, a key component of the synthetic textile nylon, can cause nausea, irritation, and central nervous system dysfunction in children.

Many of these chemicals are known carcinogens that are harmful after both short-term and long-term exposure.

Oftentimes, construction of one factory or refinery in a fenceline community “paves the way for more production facilities…built in close proximity to one another.” An example of this phenomenon is Cancer Alley, an 85-mile long industrial corridor in Louisiana that has been packed with polluting petrochemical plants and oil refineries. With a largely low-income African American population and risk of cancer 50 times the national average, this alley is a blatantly obvious testament to the environmental racism in this country.

The largely low-income African American communities living in Cancer Alley have a risk of cancer 50x higher than the national average.

The manufacturing stage of synthetic textiles exposes garment workers and nearby communities to the hazard we are here to talk about—high concentrations of synthetic microfibers. Garment workers and communities located nearby clothing manufacturers are at risk of inhaling more synthetic microfibers and suffering the health impacts. For example, 4% of workers in nylon plants in the US and Canada have interstitial lung disease, e.g. scarring of the lung tissue. While there is still research to be done on how inhaled microfibers impact the human body, it is known that microfibers can persist in the lungs and cause breathlessness, coughing, asthma, and inflammation. Studies have also demonstrated a link between occupational exposure to synthetic textile fibers and breast cancer. The health impacts of microfiber inhalation are particularly worrying for women of color, as they make up 80% of garment workers worldwide. Mass production of clothing is also often outsourced to low and middle-income countries where occupational and safety standards are lower.

4% of workers in nylon plants in the US and Canada have interstitial lung disease, e.g. scarring of the lung tissue

Once a piece of synthetic clothing reaches the consumer, it has already caused significant harm to vulnerable populations through the extraction, refinement, and manufacturing stages. But the negative impacts don't stop there, as wearing and washing those synthetic clothes cause huge effluxes of microfibers into waterways and oceans. This magnitude of microfiber release into the environment poses a range of potentially devastating threats to marine and freshwater ecosystems and human populations. Remember how I mentioned that microfibers are great at absorbing and transporting persistent organic pollutants (POPs)? Well, research has shown that POPs can transfer from contaminated plastics to wildlife and even travel up from the bottom of the marine food chain (e.g. plankton) to the seafood that we eat. The infiltration of chemical pollutants into our food chain is troubling for humans eating a traditional marine diet with “large amounts of fish, shellfish, or wild foods that are high in fat.” These populations include indigenous communities, local subsistence fishers, and island peoples, and health impacts have been said to range from immune system disruption to inflammation to cardiovascular disease.

IPEN’s Ocean Pollutants Guide discusses how chemical pollutants in our food chain are troubling for humans eating a traditional marine diet including indigenous communities, local subsistence fishers, and island peoples.

Through this discussion of the different stages of synthetic textile production, it is clear that some populations are experiencing more environmental-health damage than others from microfiber pollution. This is called pollution inequity. When looking to solve the microfiber pollution problem, it is necessary to understand that environmental catastrophes are often disproportionately borne by marginalized and low-income communities of color and that their experiences must be factored into the solutions.

Do you have a solution to the microfiber problem? Be sure to check out The Microfiber Innovation Challenge powered by Conservation X Labs, a $650,000 competition to source and support innovations addressing microfiber pollution.

A huge thank you to Devin Nieusma, Barbara Martinez, and Amy Richards.

Audrey is an intersectional environmentalist, rising sophomore at Smith College, and fellow at Conservation X Labs. Find her on twitter @AudreyCCho