Plastic pollution has been a problem for decades. But new research shines the spotlight on a new plastic pollution menace—microfibers.

By 2050, the World Economic Forum predicts that the amount of plastic in the oceans will outweigh ALL the fish. When you hear “plastic” pollution, you might picture six-pack rings wrapped around seagulls or beaches littered with plastic bottles. But now, researchers are discovering a new menace — microfibers. They’re tiny strands of synthetic fibers.

Microfibers are a type of plastic pollution known as microplastics. Microplastics are teeny tiny bits of plastic that are smaller than 5 mm — which is about the size of a grain of rice. They typically come from larger pieces of plastic that have been broken down over time, or from plastic microbeads found in exfoliating face washes.

Most microfiber pollution comes from the synthetic clothing that many of us LOVE to wear — think fleece jackets and yoga pants. But this comfort and fashion has a cost. Each time synthetic fabrics are washed, those tiny microfibers shed. Washing a typical polyester fleece can release thousands of microfibers that can travel from the washing machine to the local water treatment plant, where they can slip by filters and enter rivers, lakes, and oceans. And from there, fish and other marine life are eating the microfibers, which may leach harmful toxins.

Microfiber research is pretty new. It didn’t really start until 2011. But since then, researchers have been finding microfibers EVERYWHERE. They’ve been found in tap water in dozens of countries, including the U.S. A German study found microfibers in all 24 beer brands they tested. Researchers in Paris even discovered microfibers falling from the air, meaning we could be BREATHING them in on a daily basis.

What are microplastics?
Small plastic pieces less than five millimeters long which can be harmful to our ocean and aquatic life.

What is plastic made of?
Plastics are made from oil. Oil is a carbon-rich raw material, and plastics are large carbon-containing compounds. They’re large molecules called polymers, which are composed of repeating units of shorter carbon-containing compounds called monomers.


Microfibers are migrating into field and food
The biggest environmental problem you’ve never heard of
Plastic will outweigh fish in the oceans by 2050
Microfibers found in 25% of fish examined in California
Microbeads banned in the United States
German beer contaminated with microfibers
Tap water in multiple countries contains microfibers
Microfibers in the air in Paris
Water treatment plants filter out 95 to 99 percent of microplastics
Patagonia: An update on microfiber pollution
The shirt of the future will be made by methane-eating bacteria

Is Your Fleece Jacket Polluting the Oceans? 28 February,2018Derek Lartaud


Derek Lartaud

Derek Lartaud came to the Bay Area after nearly five years of researching schizophrenia and diabetes at Yale University. Determined to tell visual stories, he’s worked for the BBC, Al Jazeera America, TIME, PBS, and the Center for Investigative Reporting. He has a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience and a master’s degree in journalism. When not holding a camera or editing a story, he’s trying to rebuild his 1969 Honda CL350.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor