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Matt Simon is a science journalist at Wired magazine. He’s the author of “A Poison Like No Other: How Microplastics Corrupted Our Planet and Our Bodies.” This column was produced by Progressive Perspectives, which is run by The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.
An environmental crisis is brewing in your washing machine.
We’re all familiar with macroplastic pollution — the big stuff like soda bottles that litter our streets and parks. But microplastic pollution — which scientists define as particles smaller than 5 millimeters — has spread like a plague over the entirety of planet Earth.
When you wash a load of clothing made from synthetic fabrics, like polyester and nylon, millions of tiny fibers break off and flush into the environment. The land, sea and air are now saturated with these plastic microfibers. That’s on top of other sources of microplastics like car tires, paint chips, cigarette butts and broken-up macroplastics.
After wastewater flows to a treatment facility, around 10 percent of plastic microfibers are flushed out to bodies of water. Since 1950, the microfiber equivalent of 7 billion fleece jackets have fouled water bodies. And by 2050, washing machines will release 1.5 billion pounds of microplastics each year.
Evidence shows that these particles are extremely harmful to ocean life, as smaller animals like fish larvae mistake them for food, filling up their bellies and decreasing their appetite, or they outright choke on the fibers. A liter of seawater can now contain thousands of microplastics; even sediment from the Mariana Trench — the deepest spot in the ocean — is infested.
The remaining 90 percent of microfibers in wastewater are sequestered in “sludge,” human waste that’s spread on croplands as fertilizer. This means we’re applying concentrated microplastics to the food we eat. These particles are highly toxic to earthworms and other organisms that keep soil healthy. And when the soil dries out, winds scatter microfibers into the atmosphere, where they blow around the world. According to one study, the equivalent of billions of plastic bottles could be falling on the United States as microplastics each year.
What that means for human health, scientists are only beginning to explore. But studies are finding microplastics in our blood, lungs, bowels and placentas. They’re even in newborns’ first feces, so mothers are passing the particles to their children in the uterus. That’s particularly concerning given the number of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in microplastics. Even in very small doses, these contaminants severely impact human development.
Our clothing is a major source of these particles: Two-thirds of garments are now made of synthetic fibers. We have removable lint filters on our clothes dryers, which keeps the fluff from accumulating and catching on fire. But we don’t have microfiber filters on our washing machines — at least, not yet. France is leading the way with new regulations, requiring that all machines come with filters pre-installed by 2025.
We need the same kind of law in every other country. Every government should distribute filters for microplastics to its citizens, free of charge, to confront this environmental emergency. Keep in mind that governments were handing out oodles of stimulus checks during the pandemic and shipping COVID-19 tests right to our doors. Distributing washing machine filters would be cheaper than those investments — about $50 per household.
The United States has around 100 million washing machines, which would work out to about $5 billion. Heck, if a billionaire was serious about saving the world, they’d foot the bill on their own. It’s a small price to pay to curtail microplastics pollution, which is best stopped at the source.
As plastics production increases exponentially, so too does the concentration of microplastics. Nowhere on Earth is untouched, making this an unprecedented environmental crisis. By putting microfiber filters on as many washing machines as possible, we can at least stanch the flow of microplastics into our environment — and our bodies.