The average person consumes 250 grams of microplastics each year, the equivalent of one credit card per week.
A new study, commissioned by the WWF and carried out by the microplastics research team at the University of Newcastle, has found that the global average of microplastic ingestion could be as high as five grams a week per person, which is the equivalent of eating a teaspoon of plastic — or a credit card — every week.
The ever-increasing plastic waste in landfill and as litter visible on shorelines and in oceans has emerged as a key global concern, particularly for the health of the marine environment. However, when seeking solutions to plastic pollution we must recognise that visible pieces of plastic represent only a small fraction, around 6%, of the total mass of plastic entering the oceans.
When it comes to plastic pollution, scientists say few of us realise the biggest threat — microplastics and microfibres. The tiny plastic particles or synthetic fibres which measure less than 5mm in size.
We need to acknowledge that synthetic clothing is a major part of the problem. Polyester, nylon, acrylic, and other synthetic fibres (all of which are forms of plastic) are now about 60% of the materials that make up our clothing worldwide. These fibres contribute to ocean plastic pollution in a subtle yet pervasive way.
With each wash, these tiny, microscopic plastic microfibres are released from synthetic textiles making their way from washing machines into rivers and oceans. A single piece of synthetic clothing can release a suggested 700,000 microfibres in one wash (Greenpeace, 2017).
A paper in Environmental Science and Technology Journal estimated that a population of 100,000 people would produce approximately 1 kg of fibres each day (Hartline et al, 2016). For the population size of Australia, that's equivalent to over 93 tonnes of tiny plastic particles per year. While a certain portion of the microfibres are caught by sewage treatment works, far too much is still finding its way into our waterways and oceans. Once in the environment, the tiny plastic particles are being consumed by wildlife and marine life, and accumulate throughout the food chain.
Synthetic clothing is undoubtedly a significant contributor to global plastic pollution.