The groundbreaking California study indicated an estimated 4,000 metric tons – or 13.3 quadrillion fibers – were released into California’s natural environment in 2019, according to the Guardian.
The plastic fibers are less than 5 millimeters in length, and are shed when washing items like yoga pants, stretchy jeans or fleece jackets. The fibers then easily enter oceans and waterways.
“The findings were nothing short of shocking,” said Alexis Jackson, fisheries project director at the Nature Conservancy in California, which commissioned the study from a research team at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Microfibers are so small they show up in everything from plants to plankton, the Guardian said. A reported 73 percent of fish caught at mid-ocean depths in the Atlantic had microplastic in their stomachs.
These synthetic materials are unknown to the natural environment, so microbes and other creatures have not evolved to deal with them, says Roland Geyer, an industrial ecologist at UC Santa Barbara who collaborated on the report.
“We are introducing these synthetic materials into the environment at a much larger scale than we initially thought. And that has people worried about the longer term environmental and health consequences.”
The impact on humans is not entirely clear but another recent report found the average person ingests more than 5,800 particles of synthetic debris each year – and plastic fibers have been found in food, drinks and even in the Arctic. By 2050, the global production of synthetics is expected to triple, according to Jackson.