Diving Deep: Microfiber Investigative Series for Ensia


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.

It’s clear microfibers are pretty much everywhere.

And it’s clear that our clothes are playing a big role. 

Part One:

OUR CLOTHES ARE CONTAMINATING OUR PLANET WITH TINY PLASTIC THREADS

Part Two:

HUMANS, FISH AND OTHER ANIMALS ARE CONSUMING MICROFIBERS IN OUR FOOD AND WATER

Part Three:

AS SYNTHETIC MICROFIBERS INFILTRATE FOOD, WATER AND AIR, HOW CAN WE PREVENT FUTURE RELEASE?

What does microfiber pollution mean for human health?

On the Progress and Promise of Water Reuse

Building codes and regulations are changing—slowly—to accommodate systems that support the capture and reuse of graywater and blackwater.

Architect Magazine

Water is omnipresent in Virginia Beach, Va., where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic. Due to rising sea levels and land subsidence, sunny-day flooding during high tide is common here and in surrounding towns, stressing the region’s water utilities. But the Brock Environmental Center is stepping in to help. Completed in 2015, the 10,000-square-foot facility for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s (CBF’s) Hampton Roads office and conference site sources, purifies, and reuses its own water in a closed-loop system. Excess water cleaned by the center is being used by a local brewery to create its Rain Barrel beer.

Aerial view, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation Brock Environmental Center

Water management is a critical component of resilient design yet building codes and regulations typically assume a centralized, utility-provided water delivery and wastewater collection. Introducing decentralized systems to capture and reuse water has traditionally resulted in a regulatory quagmire.

The good news is that codes are changing to accommodate decentralized systems. Since 2012, when ARCHITECT last reported on water reuse systems, some municipalities passed important regulations to govern the design, permitting, and safety of graywater reuse systems. In fact, the city of San Francisco now requires any building 250,000 square feet or larger to install and operate an onsite non-potable water system to treat and reuse available graywater, rainwater, and foundation drainage. Seattle also recently adopted a rainwater capture and reuse mandate for large buildings.

Read the full story here.

Alternate Materials and Methods: The Hoops of Specifying Green Products

For projects pursuing high standards in sustainable design and environmental health, architects should expect to work closely with manufacturers and code officials.

Architect Magazine

Architects who want to pursue the International Living Future Institute’s (ILFI’s) Living Building Challenge (LBC) or an upper tier of certification from the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC’s) LEED rating system often find themselves in a quandary when it comes to specifying materials and products. The IFLI, for one, publishes its infamous Red List of 20 categories of chemical compounds and materials that have potential negative impacts on human health and the environment.

Electrical cabling is another building product often made with materials that appear on the ILFI Red List. 

Sourcing materials that comply with green certification frameworks and building codes, particularly those for fire safety and electrical, can be difficult—but not impossible.

“Codes are always very well-intended, and I think that in general they are written with the public’s best interests in mind,” says Heidi Creighton, AIA, an associate in the Los Angeles office of BuroHappold Engineering. “But I think codes are also written by people in particular industries that know a certain way of doing things. They tend to be rigid and very risk averse. So, that can make more progressive schemes, like the LBC, challenging.”

Read the full story here.

Ten Years After the Spill, a Look at Where the Cosco Busan Settlement Funding Went

Around one third of the $32.3 million directed toward restoration has been spent.

Bay Nature

The Bay was blanketed in fog on the morning of November 7, 2007 as the container ship M/V Cosco Busan steamed out of the Port of Oakland, toward the Golden Gate. Due to a chain of blunders by its crew, marine agencies, and a pilot who a court later determined had overdosed on prescription medication, the vessel’s hull scraped against a fender at the base of Bay Bridge support tower, tearing a 200-foot gash into its hull. More than 53,000 gallons of thick bunker fuel from two of the ship’s fuel tanks gushed into the Bay. It was the worst oil spill to occur here since 1984.

Along the coast the slick extended north nearly to Limantour Spit in the Point Reyes National Seashore, and south to Pillar Point Harbor. Inside the Bay oil extended from the San Rafael Bridge to Oakland Inner Harbor Channel, oiling the shorelines at San Quentin, Tiburon, Richardson Bay and Angel Island. An estimated 6,849 seabirds and waterfowl died as a result of the spill, according to a report prepared for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Office of Spill Prevention and Response, and the oil reduced up to one-third of that year’s herring spawn.

In 2011 the ship’s owners and operators reached a settlement with federal, local and state officials to provide $44 million to attempt to repair the damage. In 2012 state and federal spill trustee agencies—the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California State Lands Commission, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management—released finalized plans for the money aimed at improving roosting and nesting habitats, restoring eelgrass and oyster beds, trail-building, and other recreation infrastructure work.

Read the full story here.

Lerner’s Permit: How Young Is Too Young to Begin Avalanche Ed?

Teens are breaking trail in the backcountry well before they can drink, vote, or even drive. Avalanche educators are hustling to get to them early.

Outside Magazine

In 2013, 15-year-old Dawson Toth was perched on a ridge watching his best friend, Evan, ski down the north slope of Hero’s Knob, a popular backcountry area in Kananaskis County, Alberta, when he saw the avalanche. “It started at my ski tips,” he recalls. “Then I watched the slide spread across the whole slope.

The wall of snow engulfed Evan, then both teens’ fathers, who were waiting farther downhill. Once the slide petered out, Dawson jumped off the crown onto the now bare shale below, switched his beacon to search mode, and made his way toward the buried victims. “There wasn’t much going on in my head except that I needed to find my friends and family fast.”

Luckily, three years earlier Dawson had received training from a guide certified by Avalanche Canada for just this sort of scenario. Within a minute he’d dug out Evan’s dad, whose hand was protruding from the softly packed snow near the top of the slide. Thirty feet down, he saw his own father buried to the waist. But where was Evan? Dawson worked downslope in a grid pattern, and soon his beacon homed in on another signal. When his snow probe struck something roughly five feet below, he and a few helpers who’d come upon the scene began digging frantically. Evan was unresponsive when Dawson pulled him from the debris. But as soon as Dawson cleared the snow from Evan’s mouth, his friend coughed and inhaled rapidly.

Read the full story here.

Building Codes that Promote Resilient Design Still Get a Mixed Reception

Five years after Hurricane Sandy—and in the wake of a brutal hurricane season—architects face both forward and backward momentum in their efforts to champion resilient design standards.

Architect Magazine

Just days before Hurricane Irma made landfall, Michael Lingerfelt, FAIA, sold his house in Orlando, Fla. But the new owners weren’t left in a lurch: Though the storm damaged surrounding residences, he says, “it was like God put a bubble around our house.”

Of course it was not the work of God but rather that of Lingerfelt, who had spent two decades reinforcing his house’s roof, windows, and structure, that saved the house. Lingerfelt knows a fair bit about preparedness, as a former president of the AIA Florida chapter and past chair of the disaster committee of Walt Disney Imagineering, the theme park’s building and engineering arm where he worked for 25 years. He also serves as a board member for the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH), a nonprofit consumer advocate for strengthening homes from natural and manmade disasters.

Read the full story here.

AI for Good: Energy, Water, Food

A series looking at how the energy, food and water sectors are using AI and machine learning to try to reduce consumption, cut costs and make the use of resources more efficient. It’s not kindness, it’s economics.

Medium ($)

How Artificial Intelligence Is Making Energy Smarter and Cleaner

Artificial intelligence is powering more and more of the things we interact with every day, from our gadgets to our cars. But it’s also playing a growing role in how society’s undergirding resources — energy, food, and water — are sourced, secured, and delivered. (Read the full story here.)

How AI Could Smarten Up Our Water System

It’s easy to take water for granted. Turn on the tap, and you’ll receive clean, life-giving water (with some very notable exceptions). But for a myriad of reasons, ranging from our changing climate to aging infrastructure to growing demands for water, all aspects of the water cycle — how it is collected, cleaned, distributed (and repeat) — are overdue for a technological makeover. (Read the full story here.)

Why Farmers Are Turning to AI to Boost Yields

Environmental author Wendell Berry might shudder at this comparison, but farmers are like data scientists. To make decisions, they ferret out meaning from a sea of data.

That data just happens to be related to environmental conditions like temperature, rainfall, salinity, nitrogen, pests, commodity prices, and other variables. (Read the full story here.)

The Wild West of Predator Control Is Hurting Humans and Pets

Idaho is the first Western state to take some action on dangerous cyanide traps, but it’s not enough

Outside Magazine

One day in mid-March, Canyon Mansfield took his three-year-old yellow lab, Casey, on a walk into open scrubland behind his house in Pocatello, Idaho. It was the boy’s happy place. About 400 yards from his house, Mansfield bent down to inspect what looked like a sprinkler head sticking out of the dirt. When he touched the goop smeared on top of it, a stream of powder shot out. Some of it landed on Mansfield’s face and jacket, but a brisk wind sent most of the powder toward his dog.

The dog’s eyes quickly glassed over, he struggled to breathe as his mouth filled with red foam, and he started having what the boy describes as a seizure. In a manner of minutes, Casey stopped breathing. A short time later, when Mansfield’s father, a physician, arrived and wanted to try to resuscitate the dog, the boy yelled, “No, I think it’s poison.”

He was right. Casey died from chemical asphyxiation after inhaling sodium cyanide powder from the device, a baited trap called an M-44 that kills thousands of coyotes and red foxes each year in an effort to prevent livestock predation.

Read the full story here.

Dumpster Diving Robots: Using AI for Smart Recycling

Recycling facilities use robotic sorting stations and object-recognition technology to identify and put garbage in its proper place.

iQ magazine

July 5, 2017AMPRobotics_1

Filled with intricate mazes of high-speed conveyor belts carrying yesterday’s garbage, high-tech recycling centers use sophisticated sensors to sort plastic from paper from aluminum. While this technology may streamline sorting, it’s not smart or nimble enough to finish the job.

Behind the scenes, recycling workers continue to sort the materials, making sure cereal boxes don’t mix with soda cans. And because this isn’t just a dirty job, but a mind-numbingly tedious one, there’s particularly high turnover at modern recycling centers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But the future of smart recycling is looking brighter. Spider-like robotic arms, guided by cameras and artificial intelligence (AI) — think of it as facial-recognition technology for garbage — are helping to make municipal recycling facilities (MRFs) run more efficiently.

“I think the way we move waste recovery forward is by creating new, innovative ways to process material,” said Thomas Brooks, director of technology for Bulk Handling Systems (BHS), which produces the Max-AI robotic sorter. “That is how we’ll get others involved, and how we’ll get more material recycled.”

Read the full story here.

Invisible plastic: microfibers are just the beginning of what we don’t see

The tiny pollutants in our clothes are forcing us to look harder for, and think more carefully about, the ways humans have shaped the environment

The Guardian

June 29, 2017

2017-06-02 18.43.453040Opening my washing machine at the end of a cycle is not something that generally fills me with excitement. But today it did, because doing so – I thought – would finally allow me to see and touch something I’ve been reporting on for years: synthetic microfiber pollution from apparel.

Instead, it illuminated something I already knew: my dog sheds a lot.

Multiple studies have shown synthetic fibers to make up the lion’s share of microplastics found in oceans, rivers and lakes, and clothes made from synthetics (polyester, nylon, and so on) are widely implicated as the source of that pollution. Microfibers, as the name implies, are tiny, so they can easily move through sewage treatment plants. Unlike natural fibers, such as cotton or wool, synthetic fibers do not biodegrade, and tend to bind with molecules of harmful chemical pollutants found in wastewater, such as pesticides or flame retardants. Studies have shown health problems among plankton and other small organisms that eat microfibers, which then make their way up the food chain. Researchers have found high numbers of fibers inside fish and shellfish sold at markets.

But I had recently received the Guppy Friend, a fiber-catching laundry bag made of a very fine nylon mesh developed by Alexander Nolte and Oliver Spies, surfing buddies and co-owners of Langbrett, a German retailer that sells outdoor apparel. The bag is designed to reduce the amount of fiber shed by garments in the wash and catch those that are shed. So, I was excited because this bag is supposed to make this invisible pollution visible.

I was relieved that my 15-year-old fleece jacket and month-old nylon leggings did not fill the bag with a mass of lint. But when I also discovered that only a teeny bit of fiber (and a lot of dog hair, each strand likely bigger than the microfibers found in waterways) in the bag after washing a bright blue Snuggie (hey, it was a gift), I became dubious about how effectively this device captures fibers.

Read the full essay here.