You’re Killing the Ocean, One Wash Cycle at a Time.
Light soil, low spin, cold water — it’s all too familiar.
Now, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with washing clothing. Mere moments before sitting down to write this, I was busy sorting lights and darks, contemplating whether today was the day I give into 2017’s Tide Pod Challenge. But how does our least favorite college routine become a terrifying force for oceanic pollution? And what role might we have to play in this? The answer lies in plastic, specifically microplastic.
So what is microplastic, and where does it come from? As defined by leading marine plastic researcher Anthony L. Andrady, it is plastic less than 5mm in diameter commonly present in seawater. Amongst other sources, the clothing we wash, specifically synthetic clothing like nylon and polyester, releases microfibers that bypass our washing machines and even our wastewater treatment plants. These plastic fragments are practically invisible to the naked eye and, if ingested by marine biota, can find their way into the marine food web, sometimes even killing off entire populations. Once in the food web, a process called biomagnification can deliver these plastics straight into our stomachs via the shellfish we eat.
The thought of ingesting plastic is pretty scary. And while we know for sure that there is plastic in our foods, there isn’t any evidence that points towards long-term effects on health. Yet.
You see, there’s something quite scary about the pollution we can’t see. Burning forests, dead whales, and turtles stuck in 6-pack soda rings; these vivid images have been burned into our collective conscious via exposure to social media. And it works. It’s why we know and care about #savetheturtles, and it’s why so much research has been dedicated to reducing the amount of visible and quantifiable pollution we release.
But microplastic? Those microscopic pellets floating around in the ocean that may or may not have health effects? Respectfully, who cares?
And that’s the real issue here. It’s why so little research has been dedicated to microplastic pollution, both its causes and effects. It’s why, even though the idea of literally eating plastic seems like a major health hazard, no evidence has been found to support that conclusion. It’s not that there are no health effects, it’s that there hasn’t been enough research conducted to prove there are health effects.
By now, the solution seems pretty simple: stop eating fish! One can, and many do. But doing so circumvents the point of this whole conversation. Because it’s not a conversation about you, or me, or anyone else you might know. It’s a question of whether we, as consumers, environmentalists, and advocates, can do anything to change the discourse around microplastic. To encourage more research on the topic. To bring to light the magnitude of the issue, and to push governments to better regulate products that contribute to the issue. Because skipping fish might be an easy choice now, but it might be the only choice later if we continue to pollute our oceans.