For projects pursuing high standards in sustainable design and environmental health, architects should expect to work closely with manufacturers and code officials.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
It’s a tantalizing vision: Bright and shiny factories where robotic arms and conveyors never break down and production goals are never missed—all thanks to internet-connected sensors that monitor machine health and respond to the slightest supply or logistics hiccup.
But for the vast majority of factories today, the reality could hardly be more different. They’re still running on decades-old machinery that isn’t outfitted with sensors.
Getting from where we are now to the factory of the future can be done—has been done—but it isn’t as easy as strapping the industrial equivalent of a Fitbit onto each piece of old equipment in a plant and calling it a day. It’s costly. There are no ready-made solutions—each case is different. And it requires a deep understanding of each machine’s functions and the metrics to be tracked; trial and error to determine the right sensor to use and the best place to put it; and a plan for collecting, filtering and making sense of the collected data.
“Many shop floors are covered in machines from 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago,” says Isaac Brown, an analyst at Lux Research. “Plugging them into the internet is totally not trivial—it’s not like plugging in a PC.”
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.)