What is in the Investigate Microfibers Kit?
– 10 clip-on microscopes that clip onto smart phone (1 per group of 2-4 students)
– 20 sampling slides with gridded tape
Materials you’ll need to procure
– masking tape,
– permanent markers,
– cotton cloth (old cotton t-shirt) OR a broom/brush OR vacuum,
– access to one smart phone for each clip-on microscope
– Investigate Microfibers – Student Research Notebook – Google Doc
Purpose and Context
Microfiber pollution and exposure is still a new area of research within the field of plastic pollution. We want to better understand our exposure to airborne microfibers. Join us to study them with our Classroom Microfiber Investigation Kit. Compare indoor and outdoor deposition levels using a clip-on microscopes and our simple sample collectors.
Photo credit: Algalita
What are microfibers? And where do they come from?
Microfibers are tiny threads or strings that are spun together to form the yarn that is used to make all sorts of fabrics, also called textiles; everything from carpets, clothing, wet wipes, bedding, and face masks. Some fabrics, like cotton and wool, are made from fibers that are formed directly by plants and animals, but some are made of plastic. The most common plastic fabrics are polyester, acrylic, nylon. You’ll also hear these called synthetic textiles. Synthetic means made by chemical synthesis, by human technologies. There are also semi-synthetic fibers like rayon that are made from highly processed wood.
Why are microfibers concerning?
The tiny microfibers can get separated from the fabric, and end up in our air, water, soil, and food. They are becoming a part of our dust. Each time we wear, wash, and dry our clothes they release microfibers. As they get tumbled in the washing machine and dryer, the friction breaks off or pulls out the small fibers from the fabric. This is concerning when we consider how much of fabric we use is synthetic, or plastic. When plastic microfibers end up in the environment, they will stay there for a long time because they don’t biodegrade.
Photo credit: Artem Beliakin
How is fast fashion contributing to microfiber pollution?
The report Fossil Fashion, by Changing Markets found that in 2020 around 65% of the fast fashion clothing market was made up of polyester and other plastic textiles like acrylic, nylon, and spandex. On top of that, the average person bought 60% more clothing in 2021 than in 2007. Because polyester clothing is so cheap, people are beginning to treat clothing as disposable; more clothing is getting dumped, ending up in a landfill, incinerator, or the environment. As you can imagine, this huge amount of synthetic clothing means lots of microfibers getting into the environment.
Photo credit: Vancouver Aquarium
What are scientists finding out about microfibers?
Scientists are trying to understand what this means for human health. The study of microfibers is still very new, so there are many unanswered questions.
- Is the exposure to airborne microfibers harmful, even though our respiratory system is good at preventing solid particles in the air from going into our lungs?
- Is our drinking water becoming contaminated with microfibers?
- How are they impacting organisms like corals or soil microbes?
Photo credit: Algalita
How can we study microfibers?
The nonprofit powering Wayfinder Society, Algalita is working together with their sister nonprofit Moore Institute for Plastic Pollution Research to better understand our exposure to microfibers. Join us in investigating them with our Classroom Microfiber Investigation Kit. With the kit, your class can compare indoor and outdoor deposition levels using a set sample collectors and tiny microscopes that clip on to a smart phone.
Print one Research Notebook for each student to record their findings. Can also be uploaded to your LMS for students to complete digitally.
Ask students to bring 1 shirt or sweatshirt from home for Activity 2.
Get familiar with the clip-on microscope so that you can help your students as needed.
If you haven’t already, start by introducing your students to the topic of plastic pollution using the Related Resources at the bottom of this page.
Activity 1. What are synthetic textiles?
In groups, students find 5 different textile items in the classroom. Give them time to get familiar with the clip-on microscopes. For each synthetic textile, have them take a close-up photo showing the fibers using the clip-on microscope attached to a phone. After they are done exploring, ask them to look for information on a tag, or research online to find out what the textile might be made of, and determine if it is synthetic or natural.
Discuss: What were some patterns that you noticed about the different textiles? Did you find any other things made up of fibers but that would be considered a textile?
Activity 2. Clothing Audit
Using the clothing articles that each student brought to class, find out: What percentage of our clothes contain polyester? Ask students to identify what their shirt or sweatshirt is made of, using the information on the tag. Collect the data and visualize the data together on the board. Have students summarize the data in their Research Notebook.
Note: Many clothes are made of a mixture of fiber types, commonly a polyester-cotton blend. You can also ask students to graph the percentage of polyester in the clothes to answer the question: What is the most common percentage of polyester in our clothing sample?
Activity 3. Microfiber Study
Prepare your microfiber sample locations.
- As a class, brainstorm where dust and microfibers in the air might settle inside the classroom and outside.
- Each student group then picks 1 indoor and 1 outdoor spot to collect their microfiber sample. The sample spots should be flat, smooth, and out of the way of foot traffic or high use areas. Like a tabletop, shelf, cabinet, floor corner, etc.
- To start, wipe off the area with a cotton cloth, brush, or paper towel to remove most of the dust. Don’t use a microfiber cloth or wet wipe as these are made of plastic.
- Use masking tape to outline a box on the surface. It should be about 3×3 inches. Use a clean cotton or paper cloth and some rubbing alcohol, or a vacuum, to thoroughly clean the whole surface inside the box you just made. Use the clip-on microscope to inspect the area and make sure that there aren’t any microfibers or dust particles left.
- Label the tape box with a sample number, location key (Indoor = I, Outdoor = O) ex: I3 or O2, the start date, and group name. Complete the table in your research notebook with the sample numbers, photos, and a description of the locations.
- Now, leave the boxes alone for 5 days.
After the 5 days, take your microfiber samples.
- Wash your hands and let them air dry. Don’t touch any fabric.
- Use one of the provided sample collectors for each tape box.
- Carefully, peel the white tape square off the glass microscope slide, making sure not to let the tape touch anything, especially your clothes.
- Stick the tape square down on the surface inside the masking tape box. Press and rub it firmly to make sure the whole piece of tape adheres to the surface you are sampling.
- Carefully peel the tape off and stick it back onto the microscope slide on the opposite side of the grid sticker, so it lines up with the grid.
- Label the sample collector microscope slide with the corresponding box number using a permanent marker. In your Research Notebook, record the sampling date.
- Repeat for each sample location.
Analyze your samples!
- Using the clip-on microscope, view and count the number of microfibers in each square of the grid. With the clip-on microscope and photo app take a photo of each square of the grid.
- Calculate the daily fiber deposition rate for each sample spot. The tape is 1×1 in. The daily deposition rate should be recorded as fibers per inch.
- Use a chart to show the comparison of the average indoor and outdoor deposition rate using each groups results.
Summarize your study and findings.
What conclusions can you draw from this study? Based on the results from Activity 2, what percentage of fibers in your samples do you expect to be polyester?
What follow-up questions do you have?
Activity 4. How can we reduce our exposure to microfiber pollution in our classroom and beyond?
As a class, brainstorm ways that you could reduce exposure to synthetic microfibers. Ideas could be strategies to mitigate impact, for example, air filters, or to prevent impact, for example work towards using fewer synthetics. Check out this NHK World Japan video for some inspiration: Clothes to the Earth!
Student project ideas:
- Create a Public Service Announcement (PSA) against Fast Fashion
- Write a Wear Out Your Clothes PSA or rap (with Flocabulary)
- Organize a classroom or school wide clothes swap or uniform share down program
- Fundraise for air filters
- Design a shed-o-meter (device that measures or minimizes microfiber shedding from clothes)
- Write a research paper on degradable fibers
We’ll be compiling the study results, microscope slides, photos, and student projects from each pilot class! Once you submit your classes data, you will be able to schedule a virtual lab tour of the Moore Institute for Plastic Pollution Research where they test water samples for microfiber pollution. Students will get to see how scientists are using and developing cutting-edge technology to study microfibers. 20 minute tour, plus 10 minute Q&A with a lab technician.
Dig deeper: Design a study to investigate another question you have about microfibers, using the samplers and clip-on scopes.
5-PS1-3 Make observations and measurements to identify materials based on their properties.
MS-PS 1-3 Gather and make sense of info to describe that synthetic materials come from natural resources and impact society.
MS-ESS 3-3 Apply scientific principles to design a method for monitoring and minimizing a human impact on the environment.
Lesson: The Problem with Plastics
Brainstorm and discuss the benefits and consequences of plastic.
Grades 4 and up
Lesson: Synthetic or Natural?
Contemplate the difference between synthetic and natural materials that make up common items in the classroom.
Grades 5 and up
30 to 60 minutes
Lesson: How and where are plastics made?
Find out how plastics are produced in the US and find out how it impacts communities using geography tools like our GIS interactive map.
Co-created with FracTracker Alliance
Grades 7 and up
30 to 60 minutes
Lesson: How is plastic production connected to climate change?
Analyze how plastics production contributes to greenhouse gas emissions using our interactive map.
Co-created with FracTracker Alliance
Grades 9 and up
60 to 90 minutes
Plastic Pollution Basics
A quick crash course on plastic pollution and what we can do about it!
The Story of Plastic (Animated Short)
A brief introduction to the issue of plastic pollution, produced by Story of Stuff.