You’ve probably heard of plastic microbeads, yes? Miniscule bits of plastic used in soaps, lotions and other cleaning products, made illegal by Congress in 2012 because researchers noticed that they were basically taking over the entire ocean. It was estimated that more than 800 trillion microbeads entered our waterways every day—three tennis courts-worth of plastic dumped into the ocean. Every day. Microbeads were gobbled up throughout the aquatic food chain, including when you and me ordered big plates of fish and chips. We were all eating plastic, basically. Still are.
Well, now we can add a new giant, micro-threat. Microfibers.
Researchers at UCSB teamed with Patagonia in a recent study that looked at how washing synthetic jackets dumped microfibers—tiny bits of the nylon and polyester (plastic, basically) fibers the jackets are made of—into our water treatment systems, and sent them right into the oceans.
Well, guess what the fuzzy-liners and smooth jerseys of our wetsuits and pretty much every part of our boardshorts are made from?
Yep. Synthetic, petroleum-based plastic fibers.
A research group in Florida recently discovered that microfibers made up nearly 85 percent of all plastic pollution on Florida beaches. The UCSB/Patagonia study showed that microfibers were present in pretty much every waterway on earth, from the deepest parts of the ocean, to the Great Lakes, to run-of-the-mill rivers, lakes, and streams here in the U.S.
So far, most of the research indicates that the majority of this microfiber pollution comes from washing the synthetic clothes, which releases the fibers into your household wastewater, which eventually meets the sea.
Obviously, you’re not putting your wetsuit in a washing machine, but you are shedding fibers while wearing it in the ocean every day. And every time you wash your trunks, unless you’re wearing old school canvas britches, you’re releasing plastic into the water.
Really, none of this should be a surprise. Our whole lives essentially take place in a giant, petroleum-based plastic bubble. We’re going to be spreading that garbage around everywhere we go. And if you didn’t already know that wetsuits (not to mention surfboards) are made from nasty petrochemical toxins, well, who are we kidding, we all know that. But we go on using them, because, despite other options (Patagonia’s Yulex, neoprene-free wetsuits, sustainably-made surfboards), we’re creatures of habit.
What can you, as a concerned ocean-going person, do about it? I honestly don’t know. Wear organic cotton in the ocean? Seriously, I have no idea.
But a little knowledge goes a long way. Read the studies, take time to learn about what’s going on. Congress outlawed microbeads in 2012 after scientific and public pressure. Crazy when you think about it—Congress passing laws! That protect the environment and human health, no less! Those were the days! Perhaps in the near future, synthetic clothing materials will be scrutinized as closely.
In the meantime, I’ll be the guy surfing in a burlap sack, on a homemade wood board (Not true).