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.
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.
Utah, a state rich in epic landscapes and national parks, is becoming ground zero for a fight between the $646bn outdoor industry and state lawmakers over public land management.
At a trade show for outdoor clothing and gear makers in Salt Lake City this week, two prominent figures from the industry called on their peers to move the semi-annual event out of the state unless Utah leaders stop supporting efforts by Republicans in Congress to transfer or sell federal land to states. Utah governor Gary Herbert was also called out for challenging a federal law that allowed President Obama to create the new, 1.4m-acre Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah last month.
“Utah’s political leadership has unleashed an all-out assault against Utah’s protected public lands and Utah’s newest monument,” wrote Peter Metcalf, a long time Utah resident who founded climbing and ski gear maker Black Diamond, in an opinion piece published in the Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday to coincide with the start of the trade show. He noted that the trade show brings more than $40m to the city in direct spending each year, while the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) estimates the figure can reach $80m annually.
The next day, Yvon Chouinard, founder of clothier Patagonia, said in an open letter to Herbert that…
You might have missed it, but last month President Obama signed into law a bill that many consider the most significant environmental legislation to pass Congress in 25 years. The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act overhauls the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), a 40-year-old statute that, in theory, empowered the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate the use of toxic chemicals in the stuff we buy. In practice, it failed miserably.
If you ask environmental and public health advocates what was wrong with TSCA, they’re likely to respond with another question: what wasn’t? The Environmental Defense Fund posted a good run-down here, but the highlights are that TSCA gave the EPA very limited powers to test chemicals for toxicity and that even when the science showed clear hazards—i.e., “this stuff causes cancer”—the agency often failed to get a ban to stick because a federal court might side with industry groups that complained the ban would hurt their business. That’s what happened when the EPA tried to ban asbestos.
The reforms allow the EPA to evaluate the environmental and health risks that chemicals pose based only on the best available science, without having to also show a cost-benefit analysis of a proposed ban. The new law also includes an important change that can impact outdoor gear and apparel manufacturers, because while the old TSCA allowed the EPA to regulate the sale and use of discrete chemicals, it did not require it to regulate the products in which those chemicals are used. Now, the EPA is tasked to do so, in order to limit consumers’ exposure to hazardous chemicals through the use of those products—and this is important for all manufacturers of non-consumables (products other than food and drugs, over which the FDA has purview). Gear and apparel manufacturers are actually big users of chemicals, so these new regs may impact what chemicals go into their products.
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.
Journalists like to lean on anecdotes to tell stories about climate change, but for climate scientists, data is everything. But data collection is seldom a quick or inexpensive task, especially when that data is best acquired via a bird’s eye view of, say, an undulating coastline or a vast expanse of ice.
Fortunately, drones (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles [UAVs], or unmanned aerial systems [UASs]) can serve as robotic avian minions, filling niches for which the conventional methods of aerial data collection — like chartering planes or tapping into satellite data — are poorly suited.
Drones are not new, nor are climate scientists only now discovering their utility as research tools. “Back in 1998, we used what was considered a smaller UAV at that time” for studying ice cover in the Arctic, says James Maslanik, a research professor emeritus from the aerospace engineering sciences department at the University of Colorado-Boulder. “It was a cutting-edge system, it was way ahead of its time,” he says of the fixed-wing UAV they employed. It had a three-meter wingspan, a four-kilogram payload limit, and was gas-powered. Maslanik recalls having to drag 50-gallon drums of aviation fuel up to their research station in the Arctic just to get the UAV in the air.
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.)
When Blue Crush hit theaters in 2002, critics generally considered the film weak on plot and strong on surfing sequences. The latter was mostly due to the casting of pro surfers Keala Kennelly and Kate Skarratt, including their stomping the famous Hawaiian break Pipeline in one of the film’s climactic scenes. Blue Crush premiered as the number of women surfers was growing, and the scene likely provided stoke for countless girls to try the sport. It also showed that women surfers can be as big a draw for their athletic performance as men.
But here’s the rub: Kennelly and Skarratt earned far more filming their cameos in Blue Crush than they did from winning major events as professional athletes. For years, the same unfortunate calculus has been true for women competing in action sports from cycling to skateboarding to snowboarding: You can be among a sport’s most decorated athletes, but your winnings may not pay the rent. For these women, achieving parity with the salaries, sponsorship endorsements, and competition prize money that their male counterparts enjoy has been slow to come.
When Kennelly began competing at an elite level in 1998, on the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) championship tour, a mid-pack female surfer might earn around $30,000 in winnings in the course of a year, around half of what her male counterpart might make, even though the men’s field was more that twice as large (36 men versus 15 women). Because surfing venues span the globe and athletes generally cover their own travel costs, earning a decent salary as a female athlete was nearly impossible without an endorsement deal or side job.
Prize money for both genders did improve incrementally during the years Kennelly was on the tour (she stopped competing in 2006) but the women’s total purse per contest remained roughly a quarter of the men’s. Even so, women kept entering the sport. In 2002, the ASP added two more seats to the women’s tour, a 12 percent growth, and overall, more women started surfing recreationally in the early 2000s.