Washing One Pair Of Jeans Releases As Many As 56,000 Denim Microfibers Into The Environment

A new study shows that microfibers from denim, once separated from your clothes and sent down the drain with every wash cycle. Researchers found signs of these fibers in the Arctic Ocean, which means even a quick wash can have a global impact on wildlife and the environment.

“Even though denim is made of a natural material — cotton — it contains chemicals,” said Sam Athey, one of the authors of the study.

Athey, who is a graduate student at the University of Toronto in Ontario, has been studying the courses of microfiber pollution. Though she isn’t sure exactly how it impacts the environment, the fibers are no doubt carrying potentially toxic chemicals and dyes used in the manufacturing process throughout critical waterways.

One pair of denim jeans can release as many as 56,000 microfibers.
Source: Pexels
One pair of denim jeans can release as many as 56,000 microfibers.

“They’re called ‘natural’ textile fibers,” Athey told InHabitat, with a caveat. “I’m doing air quotes around ‘natural’ because they contain these chemical additives. They also pick up chemicals from the environment, when you’re wearing your clothes, when they’re in the closet.”

Microfibers from denim have been found as far away as the Arctic Ocean.
Source: Pexels
Microfibers from denim have been found as far away as the Arctic Ocean.

According to Science News for Students, Athey’s team found denim microfibers in sediment beds at the bottom of the Great Lakes, the largest freshwater lakes in the United States and a source of drinking water for millions. They found plastic and other synthetic microfibers, too, but noted that 12 to 23 percent of the microfibers found in each sample originated from denim.

“These fibers occurred everywhere we looked,” she says. “Urban and suburban lakes, as well as remote areas in the Arctic Ocean.”

Sediment samples taken from the Great Lakes contained microfiber pollution comprised of 25% denim fibers.
Source: Pexels
Sediment samples taken from the Great Lakes contained microfiber pollution comprised of 25% denim fibers.

As the American Chemical Society reports, samples from lakes near Toronto contained 12% denim microfibers, the lowest amount found in the study. Waters in the Arctic contained 20% denim microfiber pollution, while samples from the Great Lakes contained 23%.

That may be enough reason to put off laundry day, especially when washing new jeans. Athey’s team discovered new denim garments release on average 56,000 denim microfibers in a single wash. Typically, these pieces aren’t the only things in the wash, either. Wastewater treatment plants around average-sized cities see about 1 billion indigo denim microfibers come through wastewater effluent every day.

Denim microfibers contain chemicals and dyes.
Source: Pexels
Denim microfibers contain chemicals and dyes.

Denim blue jeans are often considered a classic American invention, but the problem with denim microfibers is global. About half the world’s population is wearing denim at any given time. That may be a conservative estimate now that millions have swapped their office attire for something more comfortable while working from home.

“Blue jeans, the world’s single most popular garment, are an indicator of the widespread burden of anthropogenic pollution by adding significantly to the environmental accumulation of microfibers from temperate to Arctic regions,” the study’s abstract concludes.

About half the world's population is wearing denim at any given time.
Source: Pexels
About half the world’s population is wearing denim at any given time.

Still, the authors of the study want to make it clear that are not calling for a ban on the sale of denim. Far from it. They just want people to pay more attention to what they are putting into the wash, and how often.

“It’s not an indictment of jeans — I want to be really clear that we’re not coming down on jeans,” said Miriam Diamond, environmental scientist at the University of Toronto, and a researcher on Athey’s team.

Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.

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