Parry Sound is the site of an innovative project that aims to examine the amount of microfibres—microscopic clothes fibres—we’re flushing into our waterways. And the short albeit preliminary answer seems to be…too much.
“We’re actually seeing more concentration of microfibres and microplastics in the Great Lakes than we are seeing even in the ocean,” says Brooke Harrison, project coordinator with Georgian Bay Forever, which is funding and supporting this study along with other scientific research, restoration projects, and education initiatives.
A 2014 study of the surface water and rivers that feed into lakes Erie and Ontario revealed an average of 90,000 to 6.7 million particles of microfibres per square kilometre. They’re showing up in fish, on beaches, in wastewater sludge added to agriculture fields, and in other wildlife. The impacts on wildlife are still being studied but a growing body of research indicates that plastics in their systems affect animals’ feeding habits, fertility, and hormones. Not surprisingly, says Harrison, these plastics are also showing up in us. “Humans consume about the size of a credit card of plastic every single week,” she says.
But since 2018, Georgian Bay Forever has piloted a program that aims to keep these microfibres out of our waterways by installing filters on 100 washing machines hooked onto town water in Parry Sound. These 100 machines make up about 10% of the area’s year-round population.
What researchers hypothesized was that, if the filters were doing their job, they could expect to see a roughly 10% reduction in the amount of microfibres showing up at the wastewater treatment plants.
While the study is ongoing, preliminary research shows that’s exactly what researchers are seeing.
While the program through Georgian Bay Forever has just recently expanded into Collingwood, there’s nothing stopping other areas from getting onboard. Even individual cottagers can install these filters on their own machines, if they’re willing to fork out the roughly $300 and have the space for them. “They’re about the size of a large paper towel roll,” says Harrison, and trap the microfibres exiting via washing machine effluent. Their website lists The Lint Luv’r and the Wexco Filtrol 160 as the filters they have used.
But, she says, there are steps we can all take immediately to reduce microfibres in our lakes and rivers:
– wash your clothes less frequently
– wash in cold water (early research indicates clothes made from polyester sheds more fibres in warm/hot water)
– use a front-load washer, which tends to be less harsh on fabrics