Freshwater-friendly Fashion

A NextGen Blog by Becca Jordan, University of Nottingham.

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. Our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts only student essays; sponsors a forum for its student contributors; and invites student proposals to write on watershed values, threats and solutions.

Becca is a recent U.K. graduate of the University of Exeter, currently pursuing a master’s degree in Environmental Leadership and Management at the University of Nottingham. She plans to channel her passion for environmental issues into a career working within charities and NGOs.

Fashion has long been identified as a threat to our natural ecosystems and resources. The fashion industry is responsible for enormous and rapid uptake of freshwater to make and wash garments throughout their use cycles. Globally, cotton production uses over 58 trillion gallons (222 billion m3) of water per year.[mfn]Fluence[/mfn] Dye that is used to give our clothing the most on-trend colors is washed into waterways, rendering the water undrinkable.[mfn]Webber, Kathleen[/mfn] The denim industry, in particular, is infamous for its water usage, taking on average 396.3 gallons (1,500 liters) to produce a single pair of blue jeans.[mfn]Fluence[/mfn] However, until very recently, one element of the fashion industry has not received as much recognition and attention as other more well-known problems: microfibers.  

What are Microfibers?

Microfibers are microscopic synthetic fibers which are shed from garments throughout the production process and washing phases. They can be made of a variety of different materials, including polyester, acrylics, polyester-cotton blends and more.[mfn]IE, Napper[/mfn] They fall into the category of microplastics, which includes many well-known contaminants like microbeads. However, unlike microbeads, microfibers have yet to reach a high level of consumer concern. Thus far, research into the dangers of microfibers has focused on impacts regarding marine life, but freshwater microfiber research is on the rise. We are learning more about why it is important to limit – or in an ideal world, eradicate – microfibers entering our freshwater ecosystems.

A collection of recovered microplastics by chesbayprogram, courtesy of Creative Commons.

Microfibers: A Threat to Wildlife

In early studies, some species altered their eating habits to avoid consuming microfibers, including the Gammarus pulex species – a common European freshwater crustacean. Research in Reading, England, showed that the crustaceans will feed for a lesser amount of time and eventually begin avoiding sites contaminated with microfibers.[mfn]L., Yardy and A., Callaghan[/mfn] This suggests that in the near future freshwater organisms will need to migrate away from their natural habitats in search for uncontaminated food.

Another study, in the US Great Lakes region (an area highly observed for its microfiber problem) revealed that microfibers may remain inside the digestive system of organisms for much longer than other types of microplastic. There they become intertwined with fish digestive tracts, and can thus end up inside various bird species.[mfn]The Guardian[/mfn] Since the plastics and chemicals used to create these fibers could be fatal, this severely threatens the health of both fish and birds.

A cormorant on the US Great Lakes. Photo by Colin Durfee, courtesy of Creative Commons.

Microfibers in Lake Michigan

A study performed on Lake Michigan identified 19,000 microfiber strands for every square kilometre of surface water, accounting for 16% of all the plastic found in the lake.This exemplifies the microfiber problem in the wider Great Lakes freshwater ecosystem. So far, 29 tributaries of the Great Lakes have been skimmed for microfibers, and the percentage of plastic accounted for currently stands at 71%.[mfn]Harrison, Jacklyn[/mfn] This does not include the fibers which may be settled lower down in the water or at the bottom of the lakes and riverbeds, suggesting the actual number is likely to be far higher than current research reports.

Map of the US Great Lakes by NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, courtesy of Creative Commons.

Material Matters

Fiber type can determine the severity of impact on freshwater environments:

  • A single fleece being washed in a washing machine can produce over 1,900 fibers.[mfn]MA, Browne[/mfn]
  • Polyester and acrylic garments tend to shed larger amounts of microfibers during their first couple of washes, followed by a polyester-cotton blend material.
  • On average, 6 kilograms of acrylic material will release over 700,000 fibers in every wash. This is the largest number of microfibers to be released from tested materials.[mfn]IE, Napper[/mfn]

The type of washing machine being used also has an effect on the level of impact. A 2016 study, connecting machine washing and microfiber pollution revealed that top-load washing machines produced 7 times more microfibers than front-load machines washing the same type of material.[mfn]Environmental Science & Technology et al.[/mfn] While front-loading washing machines tend to be more expensive, they may be worth the investment in terms of sustainability – not to mention their water efficiency in comparison to top-loaders!

Lake Michigan at dusk. Photo by Kevin Dooley, courtesy of Creative Commons.

Microfiber Mitigation

So, after understanding the problem, how can we keep our microfibers to a minimum? As previously mentioned, being conscious of our choice of washing machine and materials can go a long way. Some retailers have already started to think about how to stop their microfibers from entering freshwater systems. The sustainable clothing brand Lucy&Yak (well known for their colourful fleeces) are coming out with their own ‘Guppy Friend Wash Bag’, designed to catch fibers before they get washed away.

Another solution, although a perhaps a little off-putting for the more fastidious among us: wash your garments less. We are not suggesting we all walk around in stained and stinky clothing, but lets ask ourselves if that fleece really needs washing this time around… We can spot-wash stains in the sink rather than putting the entire item through the wash cycle, thus supporting freshwater organisms who will benefit from cleaner water, thanks to your diligence.

Hopefully, as more research details impacts of microfibers on freshwater ecosystems, consumers will become more aware of how their clothing choices can contaminate areas like the Great Lakes. Let’s, act collectively to minimize impact.


Associated Press in Traverse City, Michigan. “Great Lakes Struggling with Invisible Threat of Plastic Microfibre Pollution”. The Guardian, January 9, 2015. Accessed August 5th, 2020 by RJ.

Fluence News Team. “The Water Footprint of the Blue Jean”. Fluence, July 6, 2020. Accessed August 5th, 2020 by RJ.

Harrison, Jacklyn. “Microfibers in the Freshwater Environment”. NEIWPCC, March, 2017. Accessed August 5th, 2020 by RJ.

IE, Napper and RC, Thompson. “Release of Synthetic Microplastic Plastic Fibres from Domestic Washing Machines: Effects of Fabric Type and Washing Conditions.” Marine Pollution Bulletin, November 15, 2016.

L., Yardy and A., Callighan “What The Fluff is This?-Gammarus Pulex Prefer Food Sources Without Plastic Microfibers.” Science of The Total Environment, May 1, 2020.

MA, Brown et al. “Accumulation of Microplastic on Shorelines Worldwide: Sources and Sinks.” Environmental science & technology, November 1, 2011.

NL, Hartline et al. “Microfiber Masses Recovered from Conventional Machine wWshing of New or Aged Garments.” Environmental science & technology, November 1, 2016.

Webber, Kathleen. “How Fast Fashion Is Killing Rivers Worldwide”. EcoWatch, March 22, 2017. Accessed August 5th, 2020 by RJ.

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