The Invisible Nightmare in Your Fleece

Washing a single polyester jacket can send 1,900 tiny synthetic micro-fibers into waterways, where they can soak up toxins and get eaten by fish. So what is the outdoor industry doing about it?

Outside Magazine
August 2015

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Illustration by Laszlo Kubinyi

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.

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Outside: Surfers on Acid(ification)

It maps waves, predicts conditions, turns surfers into citizen scientists, and could be the data-collecting tool climate scientists need to study our rapidly acidifying oceans.

As the Internet of Things inches its way into every corner of our lives, no one would blame you for rolling your eyes at the suggestion that even a surfboard should be embedded with sensors and smartphone connectivity.smartphin

Don’t. That surfboard is real. And it’s helping scientists better understand the impact climate change is having on our oceans.

In 2010, Andrew Stern, a former professor of neurology at the University of Rochester who’s now an environmental filmmaker and advocate, realized that surfers could serve as citizen scientists. Simply based on how much time they spend in the ocean, they could help collect data while on the water.

One of his filmmaker friends had recently met Benjamin Thompson, a surfer pursuing a PhD in structural engineering at the University of California, San Diego. Thompson was studying fluid-structure interactions, research that involved embedding sensors into boards. “It was mostly about tracking the performance of board,” he says. Thompson’s goal: to help the surfboard industry make better boards, and maybe use sensors to help surfers better understand (and improve) how they surf.

Read the full story here.

Waterproof, Breathable, and Toxin-Free

Patagonia is upping its own environmental ante with a $1 million investment in Beyond Surface Technologies, a Swiss company that’s pushing petrochemicals out of the gear closet

Outside Online
April 21, 2015patagonia-fabric-detail

Your ski jacket is full of petrochemicals. Ditto a fair amount of the other clothing in your closet that attains that magical, paradoxical state of being both waterproof and breathable when you’re hiking or biking up a steep ridge in a fierce storm.

Through decades of tweaks and improvements, material scientists and chemists have produced these miracle fabrics through a combination of membranes and finishes. High performance comes at an environmental cost, however, since these substances rely on petrochemical feed stocks. Plus, the use of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) in finishes used to create durable water-repellent (DWR) exteriors—a key part of that waterproof-breathable magic that outerwear can attain—has an especially dark side: The chemical perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is a by-product of PFC production, and studies have shown it to cause developmental problems in lab animals. The toxin, which plays a role in many industrial applications, has made its way into the environment, and small amounts are found everywhere, from the blood of polar bears to the blood of most humans.

Today, nearly every major outdoor apparel brand uses PFC-based finishes for waterproof-breathable jackets and pants. The EPA has been working with chemical companies for years to phase out the DWR finish, known as C8, that produces the most PFOA. Most companies are moving to a different DWR, known as C6, but here’s the rub: This alternative falls short in terms of performance, and it still generates trace amounts of PFOA. Plus, it’s still reliant on petrochemical feedstocks.

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Inside the lonely fight against the biggest environmental problem you’ve never heard of

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.

The Guardian
October 27, 2014

Logo-Guardian

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.

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Microfibers found in seawater. Photo: Abby Barrows

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.

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The Dangers of Kickstarter

Kickstarter has become the go-to funding source for serious expeditions and boondoggles alike. And that has some benefactors wanting their cash back.

Outside Magazine, February 2013

Last May, Andrew Badenoch, a thirtysomething former Internet marketer in Oregon, set off on a 7,000-mile solo expedition from Bellingham, Washington, with a jumbo-tired fat bike and a pack raft. His goal was to travel to the Arctic Sea and back under his own power, all the while making a documentary about the trip. Backing him were 212 individuals who anted up a combined $10,437 via the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. PBS even loaned Badenoch camera equipment and agreed to run his footage as an online series.

kickstarter-andrew-badenoch_feBy late summer, though, the expedition had fallen apart, and Badenoch, who had never before embarked on a human-powered expedition of this scale, had quietly returned to Oregon after bailing on the trip in Pink Mountain, British Columbia. He later blamed “14 weeks of delays” and told supporters the “weather window had closed.” Throughout the summer, a handful of backers had asked him via Twitter for updates on his status and location. Except for a handful of tweets, these largely went unanswered. Badenoch now says that he could have been better at communicating his plans. But he also maintains that “it was never my intent to explain everything as I went. That’s not part of the documentary.” As for the money, Badenoch has yet to offer a breakdown of his expenses, because, he says, he plans to complete the trip this spring and produce his documentary. “I have no comment on accounting specifics while the project remains in progress,” he wrote in an email last fall. “When adding layers of accounting, reporting day-to-day activities, and scrutinizing every word and detail during the creative process, the creative process is killed.”

To some of his backers, this all sounds pretty thin. “He should have told people if things had not gone according to plan,” says Hendrik Morkel, 31, a Finnish wilderness guide and author who donated $25 to Badenoch and has used Kickstarter to produce his own online series about ultralight gear. “Sometimes that’s how expeditions go.”

Explorers have been soliciting financial backing since Columbus first begged boats off of Queen Isabella. Companies like Eddie Bauer, the North Face, and Rolex have been the primary backers since the mid-20th century, but social media have provided an additional option: the public. With Kickstarter, which launched in 2009, adventurers can create a pitch with an embedded video, spread the word on Facebook, and watch the money roll (or, more often, trickle) in. The company has provided a funding platform for about 75 expeditions, though it’s important to note that the backers didn’t pay for those trips per se. When funders drop cash on an expedition, they’re funding what Kickstarter calls the “creative work” that will result—usually a film or book—and the best ideas with the most enthusiasm behind them usually win. But crowdfunding isn’t venture capitalism. Apart from rewards like getting your name in a documentary’s credits or, say, receiving artifacts collected during an expedition, there is no return on investment. Pitchmen have little responsibility to their funders, which opens the door for overpromising—or worse.

Read full story here.