Fast fashion, or quickly-made disposable cheap fashion pioneered by brands like Zara and H&M, have been responsible for several negative consequences, from sweatshop working conditions to landfills filled with discarded clothes.
Now there's another consequence has come to light. Since the 1950s, when synthetic fabrics became commonplace, the material fibers left over from wash has gathered into synthetic "fluff" that winds up in the waterways. Scientists estimate that 5.6 million tons has been left behind, the equivalent of seven billion fleece jackets. The fibers, which do not dissolve in the same way that wool and other natural fibers do, aren't going anywhere, either.
"I hear people say that the synthetic microfibre problem from apparel washing will take care of itself as wastewater treatment works become more widespread around the world and more efficient. But really what we're doing is just moving the problem from one environmental compartment to another," Roland Geyer, from UCSB's Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, told BBC News .
About 14% of all plastic is used to make synthetic fibers, principally for clothing. When those garments are washed, they will shed tiny strands that are much thinner than a human hair.
"Large-scale removal of microfibres from the environment is unlikely to be technically feasible or economically viable, so the focus needs to be on emission prevention," Bren School colleague and PLoS One article lead author Jenna Gavigan said.
"Since wastewater treatment plants don't necessarily reduce emissions to the environment, our focus needs to be on reducing emissions before they enter the wastewater stream."
"Microfibres pose a particular challenge because these escape from wastewater treatment plants in their trillions - even with advanced treatment," he explained.
"We know that microplastics have been in the environment for decades, but we still don't know what an environmentally acceptable level of microplastic contamination might look like - in any environment. This underscores the importance of research aimed at better understanding the ecological impact of microfibres in both terrestrial and aquatic environments. Microplastic pollution is a fact of modern life - it is here to stay and we are only beginning to appreciate the consequences."
"Natural fibres such as wool and cotton have been present in our rivers and seas in significant concentrations since the Industrial Revolution. The durability of synthetic fibres means they will be in the natural environment for a very long time and can be recycled from sludge treated soils into rivers and, ultimately, the ocean."