Invasion of the microplastics 

A recent study by Napper and Thompson at Plymouth University examined the abundance of microscopic fibres released that are from synthetic clothes when they’re washed. Synthetic fabrics have been used instead of cotton, wool and linen for over 50 years and their prevalence in clothing is increasing.

The increase in these microfibres and a recent visit to my local beach, Bude, Cornwall, prompted me too look into microplastics and microfibres in more detail, and how we can combat this increase.

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are plastic particles smaller than 5mm in size. Microplastics include microbeads, microfibres and plastic fragments from the breakdown of large bits of plastic and many others.

What are microbeads?

Microbeads are used as exfoliants in cosmetic products such as face scrubs and toothpastes. Research has found that a 150ml tube of face wash can contain three million micro beads, with each wash releasing 100,000 particles. Most micro beads are made of Polyethylene.

680 tonnes of microbeads used in the UK each year – Napper and Thompson, 2016

What are microfibres?

Microfibres are released from synthetic fabrics, such as polyester, nylon and acrylic, when they’re washed. They’re the most common form of microplastic in the ocean and are especially important as filter feeders on the sea floor prefer their fibrous shape. These fibres evade washing marine filters, get into our water treatment systems and then into the ocean where they’re mistaken for food and ingested by marine life such as plankton and fish. It was found a single item of clothing can produce over 1900 fibres per wash.

Over 700,000 micro fibres are released from a 6kg wash of acrylic clothing – Napper and Thompson, 2016

Why are they bad?

What makes microplastics so bad is that they don’t biodegrade so will just continue to increase exponentially, especially if we don’t do anything to slow down their input. Because these plastics are ingested by low trophic fauna, at the bottom of the food chain, they can then make their way up the food chain to the food we eat. In six oysters there are almost 50 particles of microplastic which are then consumed by you.

It’s been predicted that a UK wastewater treatment plant could release up to 65 million microplastics into the oceans everyday – Murphy et al., 2016

The plastics can even absorb toxins called Persistent Organic Pollutants, such as polychlorinated biphenyl (Browne et al., 2008). These toxins are then absorbed into organs and tissues of marine animals that may then find their way up to humans at the top of the food chain. It’s unclear what effects these toxins may have on humans, but some studies have shown it may cause cancer. Little research has been conducted in this area and health risks haven’t been proven.

The impacts of microplastics are endless but still largely unknown. Lab experiments have shown that ingestion can cause physical harm and also transfer chemicals, absorbed by plastics, to the organism (Wright et al.,2013). The effect of these chemicals, however, is unknown. How often marine life encounter plastics is vital for assessing their impacts so it’s important to understand their abundance.

Microplastics inhabit almost all areas of the Earth including beaches, surface waters, in sediments and even the deep sea but their abundance is increasing (Thompson, 2004). Their widespread distribution calls for a need to further our understanding of their environmental consequences; an area where further research is vital.

Because of their tiny size they are almost impossible to clean up which is making them one of the biggest problems marine life is facing.

How can we help?

  • If you want to stop it, ban it! – Many Governments have recently taken the step to ban the production of microbeads. The US is to implement this by July 2017 and the UK by October 2017. A ban on microbeads will stop 680 tonnes being flushed out into the sea from the UK each year.
  • Avoid products containing – polyethylene, polypropylene, polylactic acid (PLA), polystyrene, or polyethylene terephthalate. Download the app Beat the Microbead! to scan your products to see if they contain microplastics.
  • Change your washing machine conditions – Fill up your washing machine to the max, use a low temperature and a washing liquid rather than a powder
  • Using cotton-polyester blend clothes instead of synthetic fabrics – Research found that a synthetic-natural blend released around 80% fewer fibres than acrylic. Using blends not only reduces the impact on marine life but makes longer lasting clothes.
  • Use a bio-detergentNapper and Thompson, 2016 found using a bio-detergent releases less fibres
  • Install a washing machine filterwashing machine filters help prevent micro fibres in washing machine waste water ending up in our sewage treatment plants and into our oceans

How do you dispose of products with microbeads in them?

Unfortunately theres no good way of doing so but the best way is to put them in the bin. It’s better that there taken to landfill rather than put in the oceans.

More information 

Take a look at Life+ Mermaids campaign page  on microfibres

Microbead infographic by 5 Gyres

Impacts of microplastics

LUSH cosmetics video on microbeads


Aronson, K.J., Miller, A.B., Woolcott, C.G., Sterns, E.E., Mccready, D.R., Lickley, L.A., Fish, E.B., Hiraki, G.Y., Holloway, C., Ross, T., Hanna, W.M., Sengupta, S.K. and Weber, J.-P. (2000) ‘Breast Adipose tissue concentrations of Polychlorinated Biphenyls and other Organochlorines and breast cancer risk 1’, Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, Vol. 9, pp. 55–63.

Beat the Microbead, FAQ (2017) Available at: (Accessed: 18 February 2017).

Browne, M., Crump, P., Niven, S., Teuten, E., Tonkin, A., Galloway, T. and Thompson, R. (2011). Accumulation of Microplastic on Shorelines Woldwide: Sources and Sinks. Environmental Science & Technology, 45(21), pp.9175-9179.

Environmental impact of microplastics fourth report of session 2016–17 (2016) Available at: (Accessed: 18 February 2017).

International marine litter research unit (2015) Available at: (Accessed: 18 February 2017).
Murphy, F., Ewins, C., Carbonnier, F., Quinn, B., 2016. Wastewater treatment works (WwTW) as a source of microplastics in the aquatic environment. Environ. Sci. Technol. 50, 5800–5808.

Napper, I. and Thompson, R. (2016). Release of synthetic microplastic plastic fibres from domestic washing machines: Effects of fabric type and washing conditions. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 112(1-2), pp.39-45.

Thompson, R.C., Olsen, Y., Mitchell, R.P., Davis, A., Rowland, S.J., John, A.W.G., McGonigle, D., Russell, A.E., 2004. Lost at sea: where is all the plastic? Science 304, 838.

Trager, R. (2017) US bans microbeads from personal care products. Available at: (Accessed: 18 February 2017).

Wright, S.L., Thompson, R.C., Galloway, T.S., 2013. The physical impacts of microplastics on marine organisms: a review. Environ. Pollut. 178, 483–492. 1016/j.envpol.2013.02.031.



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