Forget Plastic Packaging—the Ocean Is Polluted Because of Your Jeans

Your favorite pair of jeans could be doing more damage to the ocean than your one-use water bottle.Washing just one pair of jeans can release as many as 50,000 microfibers. A new study examined how this material sheds while going through the laundry, where these pieces wind up, and it isn't pretty.

The Widespread Environmental Footprint of Indigo Denim Microfibers from Blue Jeans, published on September 2 by Miriam L. Diamond and colleagues, University of Toronto, shows that though these microfibers are incredibly small, they can add up quickly, since at any moment, "about half of the world's population is wearing blue jeans or other types of denim," as per EcoWatch.

Some of these microfibers are capable of entering the environment through wastewater discharge (effluent). Researchers reporting in American Chemical Society's Environmental Science & Technology Letters found these indigo denim microfibers not only in remnants of laundry but in lakes and Arctic marine sediment as well.

Levi's Jeans
A Levi's jacket is seen on display at the new Levi Strauss & Company Visitor center May 7, 2003 in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty

The study revealed that indigo denim was found in up 23%, 12% and 20% of all microfibers in sediments from the Great Lakes, shallow lakes by Toronto, Canada, and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, respectively. Additionally, as many as a billion denim microfibers could be entering Lake Ontario every day.

"Unfortunately, the results are not surprising to environmental scientists; they are even expected," Caroline Gauchotte-Lindsay, of the University of Glasgow in the UK, who was not involved in the study, told New Scientist.

What is considered the most popular clothing material in the world has an incredible impact on the environment, considering these microfibers made their way to the Arctic.

"It's not an indictment of jeans — I want to be really clear that we're not coming down on jeans," Miriam Diamond, study coauthor and University of Toronto environmental scientist, told WIRED. "It's just a really potent example of human impact."

What kind of effect these denim microfibers will have on marine life remains to be seen. One way that jean consumers can curb the amount of denim microfibers is to wash their jeans less often, along with purchasing second-hand/used jeans. Brands and retailers could also better educate their consumers on caring for their blue jeans in a more eco-friendly way.

Sportswear International also noted that washing machine filters can reduce the amount of fibers released into the environment.