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Microfibres: Microbeads' big, ugly cousin

by Mark Sabourin
EcoLog, 4/7/2017 12:54:00 PM

Microbeads may turn out to have been the least of the microplastics problems plaguing the world’s rivers, lakes and oceans. There’s mounting evidence that a second category of minuscule plastics, known as microfibres, is far more prevalent in our waters and that it poses a bigger risk to the aquatic environment.

A paper published in the journal FACETS, co-authored by Ottawa Riverkeeper Scientist Meaghan Murphy, reveals that the Ottawa River, just a stone’s throw from Parliament Hill, is just as contaminated with microplastics as any other Canadian river. Roughly 70% of the microplastic contamination consists not of microbeads, but of microfibres, which are plastic fibres shed from synthetic fabrics, likely during washing, that are small enough to evade capture by sewage treatment facilities.

“A high amount is suspended in the air,” Murphy told EcoLog News, “and they can settle onto the surface of our waters.”

A concerted effort by advocacy groups and industry has led to a gradual phase-out of microbeads from personal care products across North America. In Canada, a ban on these tiny microplastics that are used as exfoliants and abrasives in personal care products will be phased in between July 1, 2018 and July 1, 2019. That’s a step in the right direction, says Murphy, but microbeads are the shiny objects that caught the public’s attention. Microfibres are a much larger problem and one that will be not nearly so simple to address.

An argument against microbeads was that they served as magnets for other contaminants in water, and then found their way into the aquatic food chain. The same argument applies to microfibres, says Murphy. “It’s just as big a concern,” she says. “A plastic is a plastic.”

Addressing that concern will be far more challenging, however. Microbeads were recent additions to products like body wash and toothpaste. It took some effort to convince manufacturers to remove them or replace them with readily-available alternatives, but industry came around. There are far more players in the clothing industry and there are no ready alternatives. The world will not clothe itself exclusively in cotton and wool, says Murphy.

The issue is giving rise to potential creative solutions, says Murphy. One proposal is a bag that would hold items of clothing and contain microfibres during the wash cycle. Another is the installation of a filter, much like a lint screen on a household clothes dryer that would trap microfibres released during washing.

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