Your Fleece Jacket Could Be Poisoning Your Favorite Seafood

Your workout gear is poisoning the world's oysters and mussels with microfibers—tiny shreds of plastic released by synthetic fabrics when they're washed.

Sep 9 2016, 9:00pm

Photo via Flickr user jen

Workout gear has come a long way. While your grandpa was rocking a jock strap, heavy cotton shorts, and a tank top to climb the ol' rope, today's gym rats are outfitted in sleek synthetic gladiator-wear for maximum aerodynamic and breathable performance. Unfortunately, all our sweet workout gear and the casual clothing it has inspired have a downside—they're poisoning our oceans and some of our favorite seafood. Every time you throw your workout clothes or fleece in the washer, the wash cycle breaks down the threads ever so slightly, causing them to shed what are known as microfibers—tiny plastic bits of materials like nylon and polyester that help make your clothes breathable, warm, or comfortable. Your one load of laundry might not be so bad, but on a global scale, we're looking at tons of plastic on the daily. And after some poor little oyster sucks up those microfibers, you might end up eating that oyster—and the plastic embedded in it. A team of graduate student researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara recently published a report that studied the amount of microfibers released by various Patagonia fleece jackets and found some startling results. (The study was funded by clothing manufacturer Patagonia.) With each wash, the jackets released an average of 1.7 grams of microfibers.

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When you wash your fleece at home, these microfibers proceed to wastewater treatment plants that fail to catch roughly 35 percent of them. The researchers calculated that in a city of 100,000 people, about 15,000 plastic bags worth of microfibers enter our oceans and bodies of water every day. Once there, microfibers are consumed by plankton and filter feeders like oysters and mussels. They then work their way up the food chain. Microfibers have been found in everything from shrimp and crabs to fish and whales. "In terms of oysters and mussels, because they are filter feeders, they are directly processing microfibers, so there is a potential they end up in what we might be eating," project researcher Bess Ruff told MUNCHIES. What that might mean remains to be seen, she said, and added that other studies have shown that ingesting microfibers can affect oysters' ability to reproduce, potentially threatening their populations. Though microfibers are most harmful in smaller organisms like plankton, where they can cause blockages of the gastrointestinal tract and lead to starvation, even tuna and swordfish can have guts loaded with these substances. Another gross thought: Microfibers can absorb chemicals used during the wastewater treatment process and pick up other bacteria along the way known to cause gastrointestinal infections. Scientists aren't sure how ingesting seafood laced with microfibers affect human health, but they think it certainly could. "In fish like tuna that we might be eating, the microfibers end up in the stomach. So the actual consumption of the microfiber isn't that likely, but what's not known is the type of chemicals that get absorbed into the microfibers that could end up in the meat of the fish," Ruff said. " Last year, the US banned microbeads, the little plastic exfoliating balls found in body and face washes, which similarly work their way into the aquatic food web. Tackling synthetic fibers will be tougher, as manufacturing decisions are for the most part entirely up to the manufacturers (and clothes are obviously more ubiquitous than exfoliating face wash). The plastic problem has stumped some clothing manufacturers' efforts at sustainability. When certain companies have tried to do a solid for the environment by recycling plastic bottles into clothes, the plastic still works its way into the ocean in the form of microfibers. Yesterday, two ocean advocacy groups announced a partnership to recruit clothing manufacturers and other organizations to tackle the problem and develop synthetic materials that don't contribute to this type of pollution. Concerned consumers are left with few choices except to avoid synthetic fabrics. But awareness about the issue and how microfibers are shed is also key.

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UCSB's study found that top-loading washers, with their central agitators, caused the fleece jackets in their study to shed over five times as many microfibers as front-loading washers. Also, the older the garment, the more microfibers it shed, and, similarly, a budget off-brand fleece jacket released considerably more microfibers.

So if you want to do your part in the fight against plastic-laced oysters, spring for that front-loaded washer... or just stop washing your clothes, and learn to love the stink