For a three-part multimedia series for the online magazine Ensia, I described how microfiber pollution is a growing concern around the world. Tiny fibers shed by synthetic (and natural) textiles are often covered in potentially toxic dyes and treatment chemicals and are being found in our food, our water and the air we breathe.
This series was supported in part by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network. Also, because Ensia publishes under Creative Common license, the entire series is available for republishing, with proper credit. Thus far, News Deeply and GreenBiz have republished the story.
Part One: What We Know
You try to do the right thing. You’re conscientious about recycling. You carry reusable shopping bags, drink from refillable water bottles, and you’ve stopped using those face washes and toothpastes that contain plastic microbeads. Unless you’re a nudist, though, you probably haven’t yet addressed another big contributor to your environmental footprint: wearing clothing.
Part Two: What We Need to Better Understand
It’s 7:48 pm on January 8, 2018, and rain is quenching San Mateo, California’s parched suburban streets. I park my car and don my waterproof jacket and pants, yank on knee-high plastic rain boots, and trudge over to Carolynn Box, science programs director for the 5 Gyres Institute, and Diana Lin, environmental scientist with the San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI). Standing on a footbridge over San Mateo Creek, we are all wrapped, head to toe, in foul weather gear — all of it plastic in one textile form or another. Box plunges a rigid plastic tube into the swiftly moving creek as Lin turns on a pump. Making a loud wamp-wamp-wamp sound, like a sewing machine, it slurps up a 5-gallon (19-liter) sample of water from the swiftly moving stream.
A passerby inquires what we’re up to. Someone quips, “We’re bottling water to sell it!” Everyone chuckles.
Part Three: Stopgap Measures We Can Take Right Now
In 2013, ecologist Mark Anthony Browne presented the results of some unsettling research to leaders from a handful of major apparel brands, including Nike, Polartec (a major supplier of polyester fleece) and Patagonia. Browne had published a report that implicated synthetic apparel as a possible source of microplastic pollution. Browne wanted the companies to fund research to evaluate how and why apparel sheds fibers, in order to mitigate the action, perhaps by redesigning textile processing or sourcing different material. They all declined except for clothier Eileen Fisher, which provided Browne with a small seed grant. The others said it was too early. They wanted a larger scientific consensus that their products were sources of plastic pollution.
In the years since Browne first approached the apparel industry, numerous additional studies have shown that synthetic microfibers shed by clothing and other manufactured products are being ingested by fish and shellfish, and can be found in food, drinks, and even air. It’s still unclear whether microfibers pose a real threat to the health of humans or other living things. Yet, under the specter that they might, academic, nonprofit and apparel industry scientists have started to look at ways to stem the flow of microfibers into the environment.