Did you know that the polyester, nylon, and other synthetic fibers within your clothes are all forms of plastic? With each wash your clothes can be releasing around 600,000 microplastic fibers into our wastewater. Even with wastewater filtration, these microplastics have an impact on our drinking water and our environment.
This International Plastic Bag Free Day, 3 July, Dr Shima Ziajahromi from Griffith’s Australian Rivers Institute provides us with tips for reducing the environmental impact of the plastics in our clothes and answers some questions around her microplastics research and raising environmental awareness.
Tips to reduce your impact
- Don’t over-wash your clothes (in particular blankets and fleece)
- Try to use cold water on a shorter wash cycle
- Air an item rather than consistently wash it
- Dry naturally, where possible, instead of using a tumble dryer
- Read clothing labels to make an informed decision about the clothes you are buying
Q&A with Dr Shima Ziajahromi
What sparked your passion in microplastics and the impact of clothing?
I always was interested in microplastics in the aquatic environment and this is where I started my research. However, my passion for microplastics and clothing came from reading an article about microplastics making their way into our water due to synthetic clothing breaking down during washing.
Whilst we know about the macroplastics, like plastic shopping bags, I realised we weren’t well informed or educated around the environmental impact of the microplastics in our clothing.
How are microplastics making their way into our water?
When we wash our clothes microplastic fibres break down and make their way into the wastewater treatment plants. The problem is capturing these clothing fibres, as even advanced treatment systems might not be able to remove microfibers, particularly for the smaller particles (less than 20 micrometres in length-<20 μm). So, some of these fibres can end up [in] the aquatic environment and our drinking water.
Are there other environmental impacts?
The majority of microplastics removed from wastewater during the treatment processes are transferred to sludge called “biosolid”. In Australia around 75% of produced biosolids are sprayed on agricultural farmland as a fertilizer. This means microplastics can be transferred to agricultural soil where they may be taken up by plant roots and be detrimental to crops and ultimately human and livestock consumers. However, the fate and impacts of microplastics in biosolid[s] on soil ecosystem[s] is largely unknown.
Our research looks at the concentrations and toxicity of microplastics in biosolids […] and their impact on agricultural crops and valuable soil organisms such as earthworms.
What will be the impact of your research?
Our research will provide government with the data they need to make informed legislative decisions around managing the environmental impact of microplastics and will guide cropping land management. This research is a partnership not only with government but with industry bodies like Queensland Urban Utilities, Sydney Water Corporation, South Australia Water and Eurofins Environmental Testing.
How have you modified your lifestyle?
I started with my own family by:
- Minimising washing – some clothes simply can be aired; I wash fleece and blankets once a month
- Drying clothes naturally – in fact, I don’t own a dryer
- Avoiding plastics – I no longer use plastic bags, drinking straws or cutlery
- Using a refill[able] drink bottle
- Sharing my knowledge with friends and family
- Buying cotton clothing – I examine clothing labels to make an informed decision
- Raising awareness – at Coles I recently spoke with a lady buying plastics bags for her shopping!
In February Dr Shima Ziajahromi, Australian Rivers Institute, was awarded an Advance Queensland Fellowships with Industry, to help support the innovative project, ‘Risks of microplastics in biosolids to soils and agro-ecosystems’. This project will investigate the fate and impacts of microplastics on agricultural soils and crops.
Read more about microplastics through Dr Shima Ziajahromi’s open access research on Griffith Research Online:
- Identification and quantification of microplastics in wastewater treatment plant effluent: Investigation of the fate and biological effects
- Wastewater treatment plant effluent as a source of microplastics: review of the fate, chemical interactions and potential risks to aquatic organisms
- Wastewater treatment plants as a pathway for microplastics: Development of a new approach to sample wastewater-based microplastics
- Effects of polyethylene microplastics on the acute toxicity of a synthetic pyrethroid to midge larvae (Chironomus tepperi) in synthetic and river water
- Environmentally relevant concentrations of polyethylene microplastics negatively impact the survival, growth and emergence of sediment-dwelling invertebrates
- Experimental evaluation of nitrate reduction from water using synthesis nanoscale zero-valent iron (NZVI) under aerobic conditions
- Impact of Microplastic Beads and Fibers on Waterflea (Ceriodaphnia dubia) Survival, Growth, and Reproduction: Implications of Single and Mixture Exposures
Access Griffith Research Online for more research on microplastics.