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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The Dirty Secret Hiding in Our Outerwear

Patagonia pulled on a thread and found migrant workers suffering under servitude in its supply chain. Will its disclosures prompt other brands to air their dirty laundry (or even look for it) as well?

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Photo by Markus Grossalber/Flickr

Outside Online
July 22, 2015

When’s the last time you read about sweatshops in the news? Back in the late ’90s, when U.S. brands Gap and Nike were facing major public relations battles over child labor? Or perhaps you’ll recall that in 2013, more than 1,000 workers perished when Rana Plaza, a deteriorating Bangladeshi garment factory, collapsed. Either way, you probably do not associate your gear closet with unethical labor practices. Turns out, you probably should.

In early June, Patagonia revealed on its company blog, the Cleanest Line, that three years ago it discovered evidence of “egregious employment practices,” including debt bondage, among seven of its suppliers. It worked to remediate the problem, only to discover that it was widespread, so it created a special policy across all its Taiwanese suppliers to root out the practice.

Debt bondage “creates a form of indentured servitude that could also qualify, less politely, as modern-day slavery. And it’s been happening in our own supply chain,” the company wrote.

Though it’s a private company, Patagonia is known for being radically transparent about its supply chain’s environmental and social impacts and for working hard to be a good corporate citizen. So if Patagonia had this kind of forced labor in its supply chain, does that mean it’s likely other outdoor brands do as well?

Yes, it does, say labor rights experts, including Rich Appelbaum, who chairs Global and International Studies and Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. None of the experts we spoke to for this story were surprised by Patagonia’s finding.

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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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A Norwegian company’s plan to make ice cubes out of glaciers unsettles some

A tiny coastal town in Norway is about to become home to an ambitious enterprise that will turn a diminishing glacier into a high-end cocktail cooler. Is there cause for alarm?

The Guardian
April 4, 2015

Logo-GuardianGlomfjord, Norway, is a coastal town of 1,120 residents just north of the Arctic Circle. For decades, it was home to a chemical plant that produced ammonia. After it was shuttered in 1993, two Norwegian solar power entrepreneurs saw an opportunity, and Renewable Energy Corporation began making solar panels in the former ammonia plant in 1997. Sadly, lower manufacturing costs in Asia forced REC to move its domestic production overseas, and it closed its doors in Glomfjord three years ago.

Now, a startup company called Svaice is occupying that old factory, and aims to make a very low-tech product – ice cubes – from an abundant (yet diminishing) local resource: glaciers.

Svartisen glacier Photo: Julian G. Albert/Flickr
Svartisen glacier Photo: Julian G. Albert/Flickr

Specifically, the ice would come from nearby Vestre Svartisen, the second-largest glacier in Norway. Since Svaice, led by local businessman Geir Olsen, announced its business plan last year, it has attracted both interest among local government officials eager to support a new local employer, as well as incredulity among people who cannot fathom commoditizing chunks of a glacier that is already receding rapidly.

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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

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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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It’s a Hardrock Life

In Wisconsin’s picturesque Northwoods, a big battle over iron-ore extraction is pitting environmentalists and Native Americans against mining companies and their political allies.

Earth Island Journal
Summer 2014

EIJ-logoThe cab of Bill Heart’s Ford Ranger is cluttered with pamphlets and fishing gear, and as we pull out onto Highway 77, just north of the high ridge formed by Wisconsin’s Penokee Hills, a warm August wind rushes through the open windows and whips up patches of fur left behind by his pack of dogs. “My wife has a habit of collecting strays,” he quips. It’s summer and Heart would rather be out fishing. Instead, he is taking me to Harvest Camp, an ad hoc village of makeshift tents, wigwams-in-progress, fire pits, and a sweat lodge that has been established by the Lac Courte Oreilles tribe, one of six bands of the Lake Superior Chippewa.

Usually, harvest camps are simply a meeting place for tribal members to share their knowledge of local plant life and its medicinal applications on land they ceded through treaties, but on which they still retain hunting, fishing, and gathering rights. This camp is different. It has become a de facto base camp for protestors – people from both within and outside the tribes – who want to block a massive, $1.5 billion-open pit iron ore mine nearby.

The Penokee Hills span Iron and Ashland Counties in Wisconsin’s iconic Northwoods. The hills are the headwaters of the Bad River that flows into Lake Superior, which by surface area is the world’s largest freshwater lake. But there’s also an estimated 3.7 billion tons of iron ore underneath the mountain ridge. In total, the deposit is roughly 20 percent of all remaining US iron ore reserves. Gogebic Taconite (GTac), a subsidiary of the Cline Group, owned by Florida coal magnate Chris Cline, has its sights set on this iron ore. Mining the ore body would start with a mine roughly 4 miles in length and 800 feet deep, making it the largest open pit mine of its kind in the world. The full ore body is 22 miles long, so the long-term potential for changing the landscape is astounding. If the vein were to be completely dug out, the hole in the ground would be big enough to contain the largest open pit iron mine in the US five times over.

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