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.
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.
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.
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.
October 27, 2014
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.
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.