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.
Opening 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.
This shedding puts outdoor manufacturers in a bind: many want to protect the outdoors, but they also want to sell product. Consumers who love their warm fleece are also faced with a dilemma.
Some brands have taken steps to address the threat of microfibers, which are considered a type of microplastic pollution. In 2015, Patagonia asked university researchers to quantify how much fiber its products shed during laundry—the answer was a lot. And the Outdoor Industry Association has convened a working group to start examining microfiber pollution. But here’s the thing: rather than using money to develop a process that prevents the shedding, most brands are still focused on defining their culpability. Because there are other sources of microfiber pollution in the sea, such as fraying fishing ropes, these brands want to be able to know for certain how much they’re contributing before they move further.
That won’t be an easy task, but Mountain Equipment Co-op, an REI-like retailer headquartered in Vancouver, recently gave microplastics researchers at the Vancouver Aquarium a $37,545 grant to help scientists develop a tracking process. The yearlong project will be led by the aquarium’s ocean pollution research program director and senior scientist Peter Ross. The first step is to create a database of fibers from up to 50 different textiles commonly used in MEC’s house-brand apparel.
Over the past few years, evidence has been mounting that synthetic textiles such as polyester and acrylic, which make up much of our clothing, are a major source of pollution in the world’s oceans. That’s because washing those clothes causes tiny plastic fibers to shed and travel through wastewater treatment plants into public waterways. These microfibers are sometimes inadvertently gobbled up by aquatic organisms, including the fish that end up on our plate.
The apparel industry is largely responsible for stopping microfiber pollution, yet it has been slow to respond, according to a report released Tuesday by Mermaids, a three-year, €1.2m project by a consortium of European textile experts and researchers. The report recommended changes in manufacturing synthetic textiles, including using coatings designed to reduce fiber loss.
Maria Westerbos, director of the Plastic Soup Foundation, an Amsterdam-based nonprofit and Mermaids’ public outreach partner, urges the apparel makers and sellers to apply the report’s recommendations.
The world recycles just 14% of the plastic packaging it uses. Even worse: 8m tons of plastic, much of it packaging, ends up in the oceans each year, where sea life and birds die from eating it or getting entangled in it. Some of the plastics will also bind with industrial chemicals that have polluted oceans for decades, raising concerns that toxins can make their way into our food chain.
Recycling the remaining 86% of used plastics could create $80bn-$120bn in revenues, says a recent report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. But those revenues will never be fully achieved without designing new ways to breakdown and reuse 30% (by weight) of the plastic packaging that isn’t recycled because the material is contaminated or too small for easy collection, has very low economic value or contains multiple materials that cannot be easily separated. Think of candy wrappers, take-out containers, single-serving coffee capsules and foil-lined boxes for soup and soymilk.
Large companies have developed plant-based alternatives to conventional, petroleum-based plastic so that they can break down without contaminating the soil and water. The market opportunity has attracted small, young companies that focus on developing recycling technology to tackle that troublesome 30% of plastic packaging that is headed to landfills at best, and, at worst, to our rivers, lakes and oceans.
For the past three years, Alexander Nolte and Oliver Spies, surfing buddies and co-owners of Langbrett, a German retailer with four stores that sells surf gear and outdoor apparel, have been haunted by news reports connecting many of the products they sell to an emerging but serious environmental threat: microfiber pollution. Synthetic textiles, such as fleece jackets, send tiny plastic fibers into wastewater after washing. These bits eventually make their way into rivers, lakes and our oceans, where they pose health threats to plants and animals. The two men knew they had to act.
“We said, ‘either we have to stop selling fleece [apparel] or we have to think of a solution’,” explains Nolte. “So we went out to our beer garden and said ‘what can we do?’”
The beer-filled brainstorming session eventually led to Guppy Friend, a mesh laundry bag, that goes into the washing machine. The bag captures shedding fibers as clothes are tossed and spun, preventing the fibers from escaping. It’s roomy enough for a couple of fleece jackets or other apparel made of synthetic fabric. In two weeks, Langbrett, in partnership with outdoor clothing company Patagonia, will start shipping the Guppy Friend to the backers of their Kickstarter campaign. Patagonia will then begin selling the bag to customers.
The Guppy Friend is the first device designed and marketed specifically to prevent microfiber pollution. Microfibers are tiny, so they can easily move through sewage treatment plants. Natural fibers, such as cotton or wool, biodegrade over time. But synthetic fibers are problematic because they do not biodegrade, and tend to bind with molecules of harmful chemical pollutants found in wastewater, such as pesticides or flame retardants. Plus, fibers from apparel are often coated with chemicals to achieve performance attributes such as water resistance. 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.
The brand commissioned a study to find out how many synthetic microfibers—the tiny bits of plastic that marine scientists say could be jeopardizing our oceans—are shed from its jackets in the wash. The results aren’t pretty.
It all started on a beach in southwestern England in the early 2000s. Richard Thompson, then a senior lecturer at Plymouth University (where he now serves as professor of marine biology), was leading a team of graduate students researching microplastics in marine environments. Examining samples of sandy sediment, they expected to find degraded bits of marine plastic from decades-old flotsam or plastic beads that were becoming widely used in cleaners. To their surprise, most of the plastic fragments were fibrous, which meant they likely came from clothing, rope, or some types of packaging.
Then, in 2011, Mark Browne, one of Thompson’s former graduate students, published a study in which he examined sediment sampled from 15 beaches around the world. He found high concentrations of polyester and acrylic fibers in samples taken near wastewater treatment plants. He then ran a polyester fleece jacket through the wash and filtered 1,900 fibers from the wastewater—fibers that otherwise would have gone to the local wastewater treatment plant. Browne started reaching out to apparel makers to see if they’d help fund research to study this issue more deeply—eventually, he hoped, finding tweaks to fabric design or apparel construction that would stop the microfibers from entering wastewater. He received one offer of help—from women’s clothing brand Eileen Fisher—but Patagonia, Columbia, and other big brands declined, saying they didn’t know if the fibers were anything they needed to worry about.
Fast-forward four more years, and the fibers finally got everyone’s attention. The science was piling on, showing that wastewater treatment plants couldn’t filter out all synthetic fibers, and that toxins such as DDT and PCBs can bind to them as they make their way into watersheds. It also showed that small aquatic species ingest the fibers, and that fish and bivalves sold for human consumption also contain microfibers. Experiments have shown that microplastics can lead to poor health outcomes in some species, and research is underway to find out how the plastics affect humans.
Jill Dumain, director of environmental strategy at Patagonia, was one of the people paying attention to all the news. In early 2015, she and the company’s leadership decided to commission a study to find out if and how Patagonia’s iconic and well-loved fleeces and some other synthetic products were contributing to the problem. The results recently came in, and they’re not good.
Humanity dumps 8 million tons of plastic into the oceans each year, according to a study published early this year in Science. That’s a mind-blowingly large figure, but it still doesn’t account for the untold billions of tiny plastic fibers from synthetic apparel that leave your washing machine and enter rivers, lakes, and oceans through wastewater treatment plants.
These fibers, as well as tiny bits of degraded trash and microbeads from personal care products, have generated a long list of questions and concerns among environmental scientists. In a new study in Nature, Chelsea Rochman, a marine ecotoxicologist from the University of California, Davis, addressed one of the chief concerns: Are those fibers and other microplastics getting into our food system? The answer: Yes.
To reach this conclusion, Rochman and her colleagues purchased and dissected fish and bivalves from markets near Half Moon Bay, California, and compared their contents to those of fish and bivalves purchased from a market in Makassar, Indonesia. In both locations, more than half of the species and roughly a third of the individual fish and shellfish contained foreign objects—most of which were microplastics—that the fish and shellfish filtered from the water or mistook for food. But while none of the debris collected from the Indonesian samples were fibers, the researchers concluded that the majority of debris collected from fish and shellfish caught along the California coast were fibers from textiles. (The study did not distinguish between cotton and synthetic fibers, the latter of which are so prevalent in outdoor performance wear.)
Gregg Treinish is dismayed about what is coming out of his washing machine.
“What I’m seeing is shocking. Every couple of weeks, I clean out the filter and put the contents in a 32-ounce Ball jar,” says the founder of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC), a nonprofit that trains outdoor enthusiasts to collect data for environmental researchers. After roughly two months, Treinish says, “the bottle is more than half-full of the crap that would have otherwise been shed right into the waterway.”
That crap is thousands of synthetic fibers shed from Treinish’s clothing during wash cycles (he captures them in an aftermarket filter), and the waterway is Montana’s Gallatin River. Treinish, whose organization receives financial support from a number of outdoor-gear companies, recently launched a campaign to track the flow of those fibers into fresh water. He plans to share that data with his funders.
What’s so bad about a few plastic threads? In 2011, British ecologist Mark Anthony Browne published a study describing the discovery of micron-scale synthetic fibers, mostly polyester and acrylic, in sediments along beaches the world over, with the highest concentrations appearing near wastewater-disposal sites. That strongly suggested that the micro-fibers came from apparel, a hunch he checked by filtering 1,900 fibers found in the waste-water from washing a single fleece jacket. A similar study at VU University Amsterdam in 2012 estimated that laundry wastewater is sending around two billion synthetic microfibers per second into Europe’s waters.
In 2011, an ecologist released an alarming study showing that tiny clothing fibers could be the biggest source of plastic in our oceans. The bigger problem? No one wanted to hear it.
October 27, 2014
Ecologist Mark Browne knew he’d found something big when, after months of tediously examining sediment along shorelines around the world, he noticed something no one had predicted: fibers. Everywhere. They were tiny and synthetic and he was finding them in the greatest concentration near sewage outflows. In other words, they were coming from us.
In fact, 85% of the human-made material found on the shoreline were microfibers, and matched the types of material, such as nylon and acrylic, used in clothing.
It is not news that microplastic – which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines as plastic fragments 5mm or smaller – is ubiquitous in all five major ocean gyres. And numerous studies have shown that small organisms readily ingest microplastics, introducing toxic pollutants to the food chain.
But Browne’s 2011 paper announcing his findings marked a milestone, according to Abigail Barrows, an independent marine research scientist based in Stonington, Maine, who has helped to check for plastic in more than 150 one-liter water samples collected around the world. “He’s fantastic – very well respected” among marine science researchers, says Barrows. “He is a pioneer in microplastics research.”
By sampling wastewater from domestic washing machines, Browne estimated that around 1,900 individual fibers can be rinsed off a single synthetic garment – ending up in our oceans.