When it comes to plastic pollution on beaches, scientists say few of us realise the biggest threat — microfibres.
- Microfibres are the most abundant form of material found in the ocean, according to a leading expert
- The expert says there are serious concerns about the effect particles have on humans
- He says despite years of warning, we're no closer to a solution to the problem
They are invisible to the naked eye and come from the clothes we wear.
"When you put items of clothing into the washing machine, thousands upon thousands of fibres come from the item of clothing and travel through sewerage and storm water and end up in the environment," said Dr Mark Browne, an ecologist at the University of New South Wales.
Dr Browne is a world-leading expert on the topic.
He published a landmark study on microfibres in 2011, claiming they constitute more than 85 per cent of plastic pollution on the world's shores.
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But six years later, he is frustrated because we are no closer to a solution.
"Why are we trying to do something about microbeads? Why are we trying to do something about bags? Why are we trying to do something about bottles and not doing something about the most abundant form of material we find in the ocean?" Dr Browne said.
Tim Silverwood is an environmentalist and co-founder of Take 3, a not-for-profit established to raise public awareness and improve education about ocean pollution.
He said the public was interested and willing to act, but there was no clear way forward because of the complexity of the issue.
"If we look back at the issues around microbeads and when we discovered that cosmetic brands were using plastic in a lot of these products, once the community was in uproar around that we did see some pretty rapid moves there in terms of corporate responsibility and phasing them out," he said.
"I feel like we are almost there."
The effect of microfibres on wildlife and humans
Scientific research has established these tiny particles, measuring less than 1 millimetre in size, are found in all ocean organisms, including fish in Sydney Harbour.
It goes all the way up the food chain to humans.
"Medical evidence shows that when these particles of plastic transfer to tissues of humans themselves, particles of this size are able to cause inflammation and fibrosis," Dr Browne said.
More research is needed on the long-term effects of synthetic fibres in human tissue, but Dr Browne said there was serious concern about their effect on human health.
One of the challenges with these fibres, is that while the majority appear to come from acrylic, nylon and polyester fabrics, Dr Browne said there was no conclusive evidence to date on which fabrics shed the least amount of fibres.
This makes it difficult for the fashion industry to make changes to minimise its impact on the environment.
It also opens the door to misinformation, confusion and in some cases, greenwashing.
Dr Browne said he was concerned about the growing number of companies marketing themselves as eco-friendly with no science to back up their claims.
"For them to be eco-friendly, they need to demonstrate they shed fewer fibres and those fibres are less toxic," Dr Browne said.
"But no-one has provided that information up until now — so we need action from industry and government to provide the information to the consumer."
Microfibres a 'big issue': Patagonia
Dr Browne said he had spoken with major clothing brands like Patagonia and Nike about further research looking into the impact of microfibres.
Patagonia said microfibres in water systems was "a big issue" and that they were working to increase their knowledge of the issue and understand their role.
They directed the ABC to a blog post, in which they highlighted their support for a filter bag they said could significantly reduce the flow of microfibres.
They declined to release the results of their internal testing to the ABC and Dr Browne questioned the effectiveness of the bag.
"It is made of fibres so might add to emissions and impacts of fibres to the environment ... and fibres washed loose from clothes either collect on the clothes or bag, so they can not be disposed of easily and so are likely to still transfer to the home, humans and/or the environment," he said.
Nike did not respond to the ABC's questions.
Clothing companies 'don't have a blueprint' for change
But textile designer in sustainable fashion, Clara Vuletich, said fashion companies needed to be cut some slack as they navigate their way towards sustainability in this confusing space.
"Most brands, when they're trying to think about their toxic impacts, they're actually thinking about what happens at the production phase of making textiles — and the microfibre issue it actually occurs in the use phase when customers are washing their fibres," she said.
"So a lot of brands and industry don't really think about the impacts once the garments have left the shop floor."
Ms Vuletich said the industry was changing and responding to an increasingly savvy consumer, but change would take time.
"They don't have a blueprint for how to do this," she said.
The reason addressing the problem is so difficult is because nobody wants to take responsibility, according to Dr Browne.
He said washing machine manufacturers should also be investing in research that looks at whether filters could reduce the amount of microfibres heading down the drain.
Adam Lovell, executive director of the Water Services Association of Australia, said "prevention was better than cure" and that people need to think more about what goes in rather than "expecting [wastewater systems] to be able to remove everything".
"So as a society we need to take a step back and think about the everyday products that contain microfibres and their impact on the environment," he said.
"We need to ensure we accurately understand the extent, nature and sources of the issue, before we start implementing costly solutions that may not be effective."