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Yoga Pants Are Contributing Significantly To Ocean Pollution

22/03/2017 10:42 AM AEDT | Updated 22/03/2017 10:50 AM AEDT

Here's something to meditate about.

Yoga pants, and other clothes made from common synthetic materials, are causing the world's oceans to fill up with minuscule pieces of plastic known as microfibers, according to a new study out of Florida.

The lead researcher on the project says she was so thrown off by the unexpected findings that she can't even accurately assess the types of risks such pollution poses at this point.

Nylon, acrylic, polyester and other materials ― which are used to make workout pants, tops, fleeces and other leisure clothing ― are all petroleum-based plastics. They're spun into tiny threads and woven together to make fabric. When people clean these clothes in a washing machine, microfibers are released and end up in wastewater treatment plants. From there, they travel to rivers, lakes and oceans.

It's hard to imagine that this could be a good thing. -- Maia McGuire, University of Florida

The Florida Microplastic Awareness Project recently tested more than 950 water samples around the state, from the northeast in Jacksonville all the way down to the southern tip of Key West. Microfibers made up 83 percent of the plastics identified, more than any other type, according to Maia McGuire, sea grant extension agent at the University of Florida.

"There's cause for concern, but we're not exactly sure how much," McGuire told The Huffington Post. "Should we be alarmed rather than concerned? It's hard to imagine that this could be a good thing."

For socially conscious consumers who embrace a holistic lifestyle and might shun plastic bottles, meat and fur, the report's findings will likely be alarming.

southtownboy via Getty Images
Nylon, acrylic, polyester and other materials are all petroleum-based plastics, which are spun into tiny threads and woven together to make fabric. When they're laundered in washing machines, these clothing items release microfibers, which eventually make their way into our oceans.

While the exact risks associated with microfibers remain unknown, animals are certainly consuming them. And they're not just excreting these substances, McGuire noted. Research has shown that microfibers are getting embedded into the tissues of marine life.

"That's a little more alarming than something that's passing through the body," McGuire said.

It's also unclear how this might affect fish-eating humans.

The Florida Microplastic Awareness Project
The Florida Microplastic Awareness Project invited about 160 "citizen scientists" to collect water samples and analyze the data. 

Microfibers, and their prevalence in natural bodies of water, has been on the radar of marine biologists for some time. McGuire's team was the first to delve into their presence – and effects – in Florida, specifically.

Last year researchers from the University of California at Santa Barbara investigated the connection between washing machines and the release of microfibers. Their study, funded by apparel company Patagonia, found that when synthetic jackets are laundered, they release about 1.7 grams from the washing machine.

The sheer volume of microfibers in natural bodies of water has been overlooked in the past, according to McGuire, because of the types of tools researchers use.

Researchers often use nets that allow them to collect large volumes of water, but the mesh size enables small items to pass through. Microfibers are 100 times thinner than a strand of human hair and can't be seen by the naked eye.

While looking through a microscope, McGuire will often grab a microfiber by a tweezer. But when she removes her hand, she said she can no longer see the piece of material.

The Florida Microplastic Awareness Project
Microfibers made up 83 percent of the plastic found in the water sampled by the the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project. That was more than any other type of plastic.

Determined to get an accurate reading of the plastics levels in Florida waters, McGuire and her volunteers used nets that could capture such microscopic materials. Still, however, McGuire said she wasn't anticipating to uncover such an overwhelming amount of microfibers.

In fact, McGuire expected that the waters would be predominantly riddled with something different: microbeads, the tiny plastic particles used as exfoliants in facial scrubs, body washes and toothpastes. (These particles get flushed down drains and make their way into bodies of water. In 2015, former President Barack Obama banned microbeads from rinse-off cosmetics.) However, just 7 percent of the water samples in McGuire's study contained microbeads, to her surprise.

More research still needs to be done to understand the effects of microfibers, but McGuire said there are ways consumers can help protect oceans from the plastic substance. First and foremost, she urges shoppers to read labels carefully.

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Consumers can help protect oceans from microfibers by carefully checking clothing labels. Unless a product is 100 percent cotton, for example, it may contain other materials, like polyester. Shoppers should seek out natural fabrics, including bamboo, linen and silk. 

"A lot of people don't think twice about what their clothes are made of," McGuire said. "Even things you think are cotton ― unless it's 100 percent cotton, it's probably a cotton blend. That means it has polyester mixed in there."

She recommends keeping a lookout for natural fabrics, including bamboo, linen and silk.

Putting synthetic clothing into a filter bag before washing can help reduce the flow of microfibers. Patagonia is currently working on a product called "Guppy Friend," a bag for washing that traps microfibers and keeps them from entering oceans, rivers and lakes.

Part of what distinguished the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project from other research projects was the way the samples were collected. McGuire was eager to demonstrate to everyday people, outside of the marine biologist community, just how polluted our oceans are.

The Florida Microplastic Awareness Project
After collecting one-liter water samples, volunteers analyzed the water at designated locations that had appropriate filtration equipment.

So, the group invited about 160 volunteers, who were dubbed "citizen scientists," to help gather and analyze data. They were trained in how collect water samples and analyze them at designated centers in Florida that had the necessary filtration equipment.

McGuire was inspired to involve non-experts in the process because she was tired of hearing people talk about plastics as if it were a remote issue happening "over there" and not right in all of our backyards.

"People weren't connecting this as being a local issue," McGuire said. "They weren't seeing the fact that we only have one ocean. It's all connected ― all these basins flow together."

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