Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Great Garbage Patch

I think everyone has heard of the giant swirling patch of plastic garbage in the ocean. I had and was under the impression the "Great Pacific Trash Vortex" was the size of Texas. Wrong! Truth is no one really knows. Why?Most of the debris consists of small plastic particles suspended at or just below the surface, making it impossible to detect by aircraft or satellite. Although media and advocacy reports suggest its twice the size of the U.S. continent - its not. The National Science Foundation suggested the area may be twice the size of Hawaii, but the most recent study concluded it might be smaller. But don't think the Atlantic is spared. There is a similar patch floating in the Atlantic. What it isn't is a swirling mass of used water bottles - it's small bits of plastic naked to the eye.

We were told those nasty cruise ships and boaters were responsible for the "the Garbage Patch". Once again , not true - it is us land lovers. 80% of the garbage comes from land-based sources. So why is this a dry cleaning topic? Well ... the American Chemical Society's (ACS)Environmental Science and Technology published a report saying the major source of "microplastic" ( the naked to eye stuff ) comes from household washing machines.

Mark Browne from the ACS said that the accumulation of microplastic debris in marine environments has raised health and safety concerns. The bits of plastic contain potentially harmful ingredients which go into the bodies of animals and could be transferred to people who consume fish.

So why was your washer the culprit? More microplastics were found in densely populated areas.The source was identified as waste water from household washing machines. (commercial laundries are required to have lint filters and strainers to not discharge this stuff into our waste water). More than 1900 fibers can rinse off a single garment during a wash cycle.

So what can be done? Well ....have your clothes washed by a commercial laundry or laundromat. Buy clothing made from natural fibers -e.g. cotton ,wool, silk, linen and avoid plastics e.g. nylon,polyester and spandex. Consider grey water - instead of having your washer's waste water going down the drain - use it to water your lawn ( if your city or municipality allows it ). And designers of clothing and washing machines should consider the need to reduce the release of fibers into waste water.

Even though researchers are working on methods to remove microplastic from sewage, they cannot do it yet. So next time you wash your clothes - remember you may be eating those plastic fibers later.