KEY LARGO, Fla. — Comfortable clothes are emerging as a source of plastic that’s increasingly ending up in the oceans and potentially contaminating seafood, according to Gulf Coast researchers launching a two-year study of microscopic plastics in the waters from south Texas to the Florida Keys.
The project, led by the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, will rely partly on volunteers participating in coastal cleanup events. It also will expand a year’s worth of data collected around the state of Florida that predominantly found microfibers — shreds of plastic even smaller than microbeads flowing down bathroom sinks and shower drains.
Yoga pants, Patagonia’s cozy jackets, sweat-wicking athletic wear and other garments made from synthetic materials shed microscopic plastic fibers — called “microfibers” — when they’re laundered. Wastewater systems flush the microfibers into natural waterways, eventually reaching the sea.
“Anything that’s nylon or polyester, like the fleece-type jackets,” University of Florida researcher Maia McGuire said.
When McGuire set out to study the kinds of plastic found in Florida waters, she expected to mostly find microbeads — the brightly colored plastic spheres the US government banned from rinse-off cosmetic products in 2015 because of the potential threat to fish and other wildlife.
Instead, McGuire predominantly found microfibers, even smaller than microbeads and coming from places most people don’t consider dangerous to marine life: their closets.
Studies of the Great Lakes and New York Harbor and its surrounding waterways found high concentrations of plastics pollution, including microbeads. McGuire’s data from Florida waters, compiled from 1-liter samples run through filters fine enough to catch microfibers missed by the trawls used in the larger studies, adds to the growing amount of research focused on plastic pieces that degrade but never really disappear.
Other recent studies have shown that microfibers can end up in the stomachs of marine animals, including seafood, like oysters. Experts increasingly suggest that manufacturers of washing machines — not just body washes or other scrubbing detergents — may need to be targeted next in efforts to reduce plastic waste in the oceans.