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.
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.