Comfortable clothes are emerging as a source of plastic that's increasingly ending up in the oceans and potentially contaminating seafood, according to Gulf Coast researchers. Yoga pants, fleece jackets, sweat-wicking athletic wear, and other garments made from synthetic materials shed microscopic plastic fibers—called "microfibers"—when laundered, the AP reports. Wastewater systems flush the microfibers into natural waterways, eventually reaching the sea. University of Florida researcher Maia McGuire was shocked to discover more microfibers in Florida waters than microbeads, the brightly-colored plastic spheres the US government banned from rinse-off cosmetic products in 2015 because of the potential threat to fish and other wildlife.
Recent studies show that microfibers can end up in the stomachs of marine animals, including seafood such as oysters. Experts increasingly suggest that manufacturers of washing machines—not just body washes or scrubbing detergents—may need to be targeted next in efforts to reduce plastic waste in oceans. "The consensus seems to be that we need improvement in technology in washing machines and wastewater treatment plants in combination in order to try and filter out these fibers," McGuire says. It's not yet known how much microfibers hurt the health of marine animals that ingest them, or whether their accumulation up the food chain is harmful.