What is the Contribution of Synthetic Textiles to Ocean Plastic Pollution

Quick facts:
  • Synthetic (plastic) textiles account for 16% of total annual plastic production.
  • Plastic textiles (mainly polyester, nylon, acrylic, elastane) enter rivers, lakes, seas and oceans during washing by shedding microfibers.
  • Synthetic microfibers - largest source of primary microplastic pollution - 35%.
  • Plastic microfibers leak 0.5 million tonnes - 4.4% of total plastic waste into oceans + the unknown percentage (+-3%) coming from city dust.
  • Plastic microfibers are extremely harmful to aquatic creatures and they end up in our food and water too.

Plastic Production

Annual Plastic Production Amberoot

The  invention  of  plastic  based  on  a  synthetic  polymer  in  1907  changed  our  lives  forever. Plastic is cheap, lightweight and has revolutionized packaging, traveling to the way we dress.

Total annual global plastic production is 415 Mt. Synthetic fibre textiles account to 65 Mt - 16% of the total annual plastic production.

The disadvantages of plastics however are becoming more and more visible. Annually around 12 million tonnes of plastic - 3% leakage - are released into rivers, lakes, seas and oceans with various adverse effects to ecosystems and related economic activities. This is impacting our planet’s precious biodiversity and damaging the fragile ecosystems upon which we all depend. The widespread contamination of our oceans is also fast becoming a worldwide human health risk as plastic enters our food and water supplies.

Ocean Plastic Pollution

From approximately 12 Mt of plastic waste entering oceans annually 10 Mt are plastic from large mismanaged coastal and inland plastic waste. 0.5 Mt of plastic pollution are from the nylon fishing nets. The remaining 1.5 Mt are from primary microplastics.


Large plastic waste is readily visible. Research findings have shown negative social, economic and ecological impacts. These range from the ingestion, injury, entanglement or suffocation of wildlife to economic drawbacks for tourist areas and maritime industries.

On the other hand microplastics are not easily visible to the human eye. While potential negative impacts are visually less obvious, their release into the water bodies may have far reaching consequences. Tiny plastics are injected by smallest of creatures and are passed on throughout the food supply chain. Accumulation of microplastics and associated toxins is a health concern for humans too. Studies have shown that in an aquatic life injected plastic microfibers cause a wide range of physical and chemical effects, including starvation and evidence of death even before reaching the reproductive stage.

Ocean Microplastic Pollution


Synthetic microfibers account for 0.5 Mt - 4.4% - of the total (12 Mt) plastic waste entering the oceans annually. These fibres are typically made of polyester, polyethylene, acrylic or elastane.

Washing synthetic clothing creates primary microplastics through abrasion and shedding of fibres. Microfibers discharged in sewage water are not caught by water treatment plants as they are too tiny and thus enter waterways and oceans.

Many studies have identified microfibres as the dominant fraction among microplastics in samples  collected around the world, including in surface and subsurface seawater, beach sediments, estuarine sediments, coastal sediments, and deep-sea.

Eurythenes Plasticus

Worthy note on man-made plastic pollution impact

Newly discovered shrimp-like species, found in Mariana Trench - the deepest point of earth - came into contact with plastic by eating it before we even knew the species existed

Species was named Eurythenes Plasticus.


Choose natural biodegradable textiles instead of the plastic ones as plastic microfibers are not only shed to water, but through abrasion also into air and soil, thus the issue is fundamental. See our Material Environmental Sustainability Ranking Tool for guidance on more environmentally friendly alternatives or take a look at our multi-brand international online shop for the selection of clothes without synthetic textiles and conventionally grown cotton. Learn more in article synthetic clothes and the consequences to our health and IUCN reports on primary microplastics in oceans and on marine plastic footprint.


Data in this article is based on IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) reports.

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