The first global look at the distribution of microscopic plastic fibers, called microplastics—shed from your favorite winter fleece, for example—showed that the synthetic lint is more widespread and found in higher quantities than one might have guessed. None of the 18 beaches sampled by the researchers on six continents was lint free, with each cup of sand harboring somewhere between 2 and 31 polyester- or acrylic-based fibers. Beaches near areas with higher population densities contained greater amounts of the synthetic fibers, suggesting that humans are a likely source for the pollution.
The study, published in the 1 November issue of Environmental Science and Technology, also quantified the number of fibers lost in the laundry. A single polyester item, such as a blanket or fleece sweater, can lose hundreds, or even thousands, of fibers per wash. From washing machines and dryers, the fibers can travel through the sewer systems and end up in the world’s oceans.
This could be bad news for marine inhabitants, said study author and ecologist Mark Browne of University College Dublin. Previous work from Browne’s lab, for example, demonstrated that the microplastics can enter the bloodstreams and cells of filter-feeding mussels that consume plastic-ridden waters in the lab. In the real world, the plastics could work their way through the food chain and "end up on our dinner plates," incorporated into seafood, Browne told ScienceNOW. While scientists have yet to secure hard evidence that the fibers are harmful to marine life, Browne suggested that it’s not too soon to start making an effort to keep the fibers from reaching the oceans in the first place.