Yoga Pants, Fleece Jackets and the Microplastics Dilemma

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Nodules of polystyrene under the microscope and in polarized light. Image courtesy: Shuttershock

In December 2015, President Obama signed the Microbeads Free Waters Act, banning the use of plastic microbeads used as exfoliants in personal care products. As a previous director of the organization that first helped uncover this issue, I continue to be astonished by the massive amounts of plastic pollution that originate from a seemingly innocent act: washing our collective faces.

Winning on microbeads took a huge, national coalition of NGOs with a united strategic plan. The next iteration of that work has a new target: microfibers that come from washing synthetic clothing in washing machines.

Oceanic gyres tend to eviscerate big plastics into smaller bits, and washing machines do the same — and even more efficiently. When you wash clothing made from synthetic materials such as polyester, tiny particles of plastic called microfibers are washed down the drain with the washing machine effluent. Microfiber pollution is one of the biggest sources of primary microplastic pollution. In a recent International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) report, washing clothing was found to be responsible for 33 percent of primary microplastic releases into the environment. Compare that to the effect of microbeads, which were banned for their paltry 2 percent contribution to watershed microplastic pollution.

For clothing brands, microfiber pollution represents an existential threat to their bottom line, and for outdoor companies, their pro-environment reputations.

Why? Because fossil-fuel-derived, plastic textiles are becoming the go-to fabric of choice for sports and active lifestyle brands due to their performance attributes. Already, 60 percent of all clothing on earth is made of polyester, with even higher occurrences in activewear brands. But whether it’s yoga pants, fleece jackets or underwear, plastic clothes are the new normal — and are shedding massive amounts of persistent plastic pollutants into our shared waters and soil. Unfortunately, with increasing demand for synthetic fabrics, the problem is at risk of getting even worse.

To give an idea of scale, it’s estimated more than 1.4 million trillion fibers are awash in the ocean, a number derived by George Leonard, chief scientist for the Ocean Conservancy, based on an extrapolation from existing data. Now, consider that government data shows more than 103 million washing machines are in the United States doing an average of eight to 10 loads of laundry per week. According to the scientific literature, each load can release between 1,900 fibers per load, to as many as 250,000 per fleece jacket, per wash.

Microfibers are a huge source of pollution, but are they dangerous?

It’s seriously doubtful we’re going to see a scientific study that demonstrates that animals eating plastic is a good thing. As such, many scientists agree there is cause for alarm and that a solution must be found.

What we do know is that plankton, mussels and clams eat fibers and can cause gut impaction and other serious digestive tract problems. We know one in four fish procured from a fish market in California has evidence of microfiber ingestion. We also know microfibers will attract and concentrate (up to a million times greater toxicity) other chemical pollutants present in water, and that after ingestion these toxins can leach from the plastic into an organism’s tissues. Some clothing is also treated with dangerous chemicals that will desorb into water over time as well.

So, although we don’t know the ultimate human health connection implications yet from eating sea life, we know that larger organisms eat smaller ones, and that pollutants thus magnify up the food chain.

So what are clothing brands doing about it?

Forward-thinking brands have acknowledged microfiber pollution is real, and apparel company Patagonia has commissioned a study to look at their products’ contributions to the problem. But few brands have made any significant progress on mitigating their products’ impact on the environment.

In the six years since the first seminal study demonstrating microfiber pollution was published, no clothing company has abandoned synthetic fibers for use in their products. Instead, we’ve seen an increased use of synthetic textiles, especially polyester. Brands love polyester and other synthetics for their performance attributes: they repel water, wick sweat, and the fabric stretches without getting stretched out. Although cheap to produce, polyester is twice as carbon-intensive than the next most carbon-intensive material, cotton.

Some brands, recognizing a way to solve the carbon problem, thought making clothing out of recycled plastic water and soda bottles would be a good idea. This became an overall trend for “green activewear” brands to tell a sustainability story. Although these efforts are well-intentioned, the effect on water and soil remains the same with regard to microfiber pollution.

As is often the case with so many environmental problems, the first solutions are ones that encourage individual actions and technical quick fixes over more complicated, systemic interventions. Although we at The Story of Stuff Project absolutely appreciate innovation and individuals’ desire to “do good” in the world, we’ve been in the environmental advocacy sphere long enough to be skeptical of “sexy” tech fixes that attempt to frame an issue as being solved “if we all just do our part.”

Does anyone really think retrofitting 103 million washing machines in the United States alone is practical? Here are my thoughts on some solutions proposed so far:

  • Wash your synthetic clothes less. We have to clean clothes eventually, which seems to indicate that clothing brands are still OK with some amount of fibers going into the environment. This strategy doesn’t address the systemic problem and places the burden on the consumer.
  • Put a filter in a washing machine. Again, this is the clothing industry looking for another industry to solve its problem. Technically, it’s difficult to put a filter inside a washing machine because the fibers it catches are so fine they end up stopping the machine from draining properly. This observation comes directly from the mouths of product developers at General Electric, with whom I’ve spoken at length.
  • Put a filter outside of the washing machine. This could work, but how on earth would you ever enforce it? This task seems just as hard as campaigning against all textile manufacturers, and again, it puts the burden on the public, not the producer.
  • Use a filter bag inside the machine. Recently, there has been a lot in the press around the Guppy Friend, a bag designed to stop microfiber solution by washing synthetic fabrics within the bag. This is a pretty cool stop-gap measure that allows citizens to “do something.” I’d like this better if industry was subsidizing the cost of the bag and giving it away at point of purchase, rather than “hoping” people will buy them.
  • Put a fiber collector or innovative detergent in the machine. This may have some promise, but again, how could anyone enforce this? Maybe a detergent could be invented that works as a coagulating agent that grabs all the fibers and leaves a ball of fibers at the end of a cycle. I’m spitballing, but if such a thing could be invented, you’d have to legislate that all detergent sold does this — and we’d need clothing companies to pay for the R&D that creates the product and support the legislative battle to pass the policy. Judging by how hard plastic-microbeads-loving companies fought common sense legislation, this would be very difficult to achieve.
  • Stop using synthetic fabrics. There are fabrics from natural sources that could be used more widely — bamboo, for example, can be spun into fabric in a closed loop system (where chemicals used to break down the cellulosic fiber into a usable form are captured, re-used and never enter the environment). Bamboo has a lot of pluses, and also has many of the performance attributes that polyester does.
  • Update all developed country sewage treatment to tertiary filtration with the final effluent treated by cloth filters before it’s discharged. Yes, this ultimately could stop fibers from getting into watersheds but it would require billions of dollars of infrastructure spending, and it raises other issues, such as what to do about biosolids. The only way to make this work equitably would be to pass laws that require clothing manufacturers to pay a portion of their revenue, based on size, to a fund the updates the treatment process and offset the loss of revenue derived from selling fertilizers. There are several jurisdictional barriers to work through, but what concerns me most is that eventually, a litigation-oriented nonprofit likely will sue wastewater agencies for discharging plastic fibers in violation of the Clean Water Act or some other nuanced legal theory.
  • Coat textiles with a treatment that prevents shedding. This is an interesting idea some clothing brands are assessing. Many questions remain, namely: How long would a coating last? Is the coating environmentally benign? However difficult, this is the solution I like the most so far, because it puts the burden of solving the pollution problem on the front end and on the industry responsible for creating the problem in the first place.

It’s clear that many concerned companies examining the microplastics problem associated with clothes are still in the “head scratching” phase. No clothing brand intended for their synthetic products to be discharged into the environment. Now that they know, they must step up and tackle the problem. As advocates and concerned citizens, we must work hard to listen to the brands but also to guide their proposed solutions and push for systemic fixes.

*This story first appeared on GreenBiz

Microfibers from Clothes Contaminating Marine Environment

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By Kesavan Unnikrishnan

Studies in Canada show that microfibers used in garments such as yoga pants have become a huge threat to aquatic life. Microfibers made up 95 percent of the plastic pollution in waterways as compared to microbeads which constituted only 5 percent.

Fibers captured on a 20 micron filter. A micron (or micrometer) equals one millionth of a meter (a centimeter is one hundredth of a meter). The fibers were captured by filtering washing machine effluent after washing a Patagonia jacket. The scale in the photo indicates the length of 1,000 microns. Photo: Shreya Sonar, Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at UCSB. Patagonia

Many of the developed nations have proposed regulations to ban the sale of microbeads in toiletries because of the risk they pose to aquatic and marine environments.

But now it appears that a different type of microplastic is becoming a growing threat to aquatic animals.

Findings of a recent research conducted by scientists from Carleton University, Ontario show that most of the microplastics recovered from the Ottawa River and its tributaries were from microfibers rather than microbeads.

Jesse Vermaire, assistant professor of environmental science, geography and environmental studies at Carleton University said:

What really surprised us is that we found plastic particles in every single water and sediment sample we took, so the plastic was really prevalent in the river system. As much as 95 per cent of the plastic in the water samples collected by Vermaire and the Ottawa Riverkeepers was made up of microfibers. Around five per cent of the plastic was made up of micobeads. A lot of them are coming from synthetic clothing.

Yoga pants, fleece-type jackets, athletic wear and other garments made from synthetic materials contain microscopic plastic fibers — called “microfibers”. Every time you run your washing machine, hundreds of thousands of microfibers are flushed down the drain into natural waterways, eventually reaching the sea and into the food chain.

Ingesting microplastics over a period of time makes animals feel full, meaning many later die of starvation.

Some companies have already started to suggest interim solutions, such as washing synthetics less or capturing the fibers with filters, But a larger, systemic solution, such as new fabric formulations can only be a permanent solution.

*This story first appeared on Digital Journal

New Research Looking to Turn Fabric into Fuel, Keep Microfibers Out of Water

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Image Credit: Japan Airlines

We’ve seen a rash of textile-recycling schemes emerge of late — in which the textiles in question may become new garments, but for the most part they remain, well, fabrics. But in what may be the first fabric-to-fuel program we’ve heard of, Japan Airlines — which is already working to roll out sustainable aviation biofuel for flights during the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo — is now working to turn used clothing into jet fuel, in partnership with Japan Environmental Planning (Jeplan) and Tokyo’s Green Earth Institute. The organizations have teamed up to create a collaborative council that could pilot the alternative energy source by as early as 2020.

In October 2015, Jeplan founder Michihiko Iwamota introduced a technology to create bioethanol from cast-off T-shirts and denim jeans, using fermentation to break down the sugars contained in cotton into alcohols. If all goes well with test flights planned to start in 2020, the company aims to establish the first commercial fuel plant by 2030.

“I totally believed that in the future, there would be a car that runs on garbage,” said Iwamoto, referring to the trash-powered time machine from Back to the Future II. “But years went by, and that didn’t happen. So I thought I’d develop it.”

Although addressing a large energy source, 100 tons of cotton yields only around 10 kiloliters of fuel, or roughly 2,641 gallons (a commercial airliner uses about 1 gallon of fuel every second). As Nikkei Asian Review points out, even if all the cotton consumed in Japan were used in fuel production, this would give only 70,000 kl or so annually — less than 1 percent of Japan’s jet fuel usage. But since the technology can also be applied to other types of waste, including paper, clothing may only be the beginning.

Meanwhile, Mistra Future Fashion, a Swedish research program for sustainable fashion, has launched an investigation into the relationship between fabric properties and the shedding of microplastics from polyester fabrics. The company aims to deliver a framework for the construction and care of polyester fabrics in order to minimize microplastic shedding to improve environmental performance and strengthen global competitiveness.

Eunomia Research & Consulting has estimated that 190 thousand tons of microplastics from textiles enter the world’s marine ecosystem each year. According to the Plastic Soup Foundation (PSF) – which earlier this year teamed up with G-Star to call on the textile and washing machine industries to design solutions to eliminate ocean microfiber pollution – the machine-washing of clothes is a big source of plastic pollution in oceans, with small plastic fibers shed by synthetic garments being washed through water treatment plants into waterways, which can also enter the food chain, as fish and other marine organisms can mistake these fibers for food.

Research carried out by the campaign ‘Mermaids Ocean Clean Wash’ for G-Star suggests that polyester, acrylic and nylon items are the biggest culprits, with an acrylic scarf shedding 300,000 fibers per wash and a polyester fleece jacket losing almost a million fibers every time it is washed.

The investigation will be conducted in spring 2017 in partnership with Boob Design,Filippa K and H&M, and the findings could be used for designing a subsequent, larger research project surrounding the microplastics problem.

“Only a strong alliance of dedicated stakeholders around the world can turn the tide,” said Frouke Bruinsma, Corporate Responsibility Director at G-Star. “Everyone is welcome to join us.”

*This story first appeared on Sustainable Brands

The US may be Releasing over 64,000 pounds of Tiny Synthetic Clothing Fibers into the Water Everyday

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Tim Boyle. Getty Images

Beginning July 1, 2017, the US will start phasing out soaps and cosmetics that include microbeads, the tiny pieces of plastic often used in soaps to help exfoliate the skin.


The ban comes after research showed the beads are often too small to get filtered by wastewater treatment plants. That means they can can end up in oceans and rivers, where marine animals wind up ingesting them, in turn causing the beads to be incorporated into our food chain. But microbeads are just one form of microplastics, a broader category that also includes tiny fibers that come off synthetic fabrics like polyester or nylon.

Because these microfibers are less than a fifth of an inch long, many of them also get through the filters in treatment plants, yet so far there haven’t been any governmental efforts to regulate them. A recent study commissioned by outdoor clothing company Patagonia suggests we could be sending a shocking amount of these fibers — more than 64,000 pounds — into oceans and streams each day.

“Anything from plankton all the way up to whales have been found to have microfibers in their systems,” says Bess Ruff, a project researcher at U.C. Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, which published a study of microfiber pollution in Environmental Science & Technology in September.

The study was conducted by a research team of five graduate students overseen by Patricia Holden, a professor of environmental microbiology. To calculate the amount of fibers that gets released into our water system, the team tested four different types of synthetic Patagonia jackets and one budget fleece (a lower-end version that competes with Patagonia). Each was put in two kinds of washing machines — top-load and front-load — and then the runoff water from the loads was filtered through a uniquely designed column made to collect the fibers.

A magnified image of microfibres. Bren School of Environmental Science and Management

The team weighed the fibers, calculated how much gets shed in an average wash, and extrapolated that data for a city of 100,000 people. The group determined that wastewater treatment plants can filter out 65-92% of the microfibers in water, which means means every 100,000 people send between 19 and 242 pounds of microfibers into the water each day. (That large range also accounts for the quality of clothing, the type of washing machine, and the age of the items.)


That means the entire US population could be releasing more than 750,000 pounds of tiny fibers into the water daily. And that doesn’t include the microfibers that get filtered and incorporated into solid waste that water treatment plants collect, which is sometimes repurposed as fertilizer for farms.

Even the study’s low estimate — 64,000 pounds of microfibers each day — is surprisingly high.

According to Ruff and the Bren research team, microfiber pollution is troubling on two levels. First, it means that animals considered to be filter feeders, which eat by straining food particles out of water, are directly intaking the fibers. That category includes oysters and mussels, so the fibers could actually be in the tissue that humans eat.

Second, synthetic fibers (unlike natural ones like wool or cotton) are prone to absorbing chemicals. That means microfibers could potentially pick up chemicals while they travel through wastewater treatment plants, or that they could make it into oceans or streams carrying the chemicals originally added to the clothing they came from.

“You have odor-resistant chemicals applied, water-resistant chemicals applied, and those are inside the fibers,” Ruff says. “When they get consumed, these chemicals can be transferred to tissue of organisms that eat them.”

In other words, even if the fibers go into the parts of a fish that humans don’t typically eat — like the stomach or intestines — those chemicals could still get into the tissue we consume.

The amount that humans would ingest is tiny. But Ruff says large quantities of the most commonly found chemicals on microfibers have been shown to cause issues with the endocrine system, neurological development, and cancer. Researchers are also beginning to look into the chemicals’ impacts on smaller animals.

“There have been some studies on filter feeders where they’ve been shown to produce fewer eggs, smaller eggs and slower sperm, so you’re having a lower output of larvae,” she says. “It’s impacting the population. We don’t know how drastically or if it’s a long-term impact, but there have been noticeable changes in the physiology of these organisms from consuming fibers.”

That’s especially troubling to Patagonia, since many of its jackets and fleeces are made of synthetic materials and lots of its customers care deeply about the environment.

A woman spills ketchup on a Patagonia fleece. Patagonia Facebook

Since the results of the study were released, Elissa Loughman, manager of product responsibility at Patagonia, has been trying to figure out the best action for the company to take. An important first step, she says is “identifying fabrics and fibers that either shed a lot or shed less, understanding that, and then make decisions internally to minimize the use of those fabrics and fibers that shed more.”

Patagonia is also now working with a team at North Carolina State University to devise a test that clothing companies could use in their labs to learn about microfiber shedding when trying out a new material.

“The idea is that there could be another test that everyone could do in their standardized test tabs that would identify the shedding potential prior to actually choosing to put a fiber or a fabric to use in a product,” she explains.

Loughman adds that the problem has to be addressed at many levels — washing machine manufacturers can do their parts, too, and there are several ways eco-conscious consumers can decrease their microfiber pollution. Septic tank filters can be effective at catching microfibers when used in home washing machines, and a nonprofit called the Rozalia Project, which is devoted to keeping the oceans clean, is developing a ball that can catch microfibers in the wash.

Those who have a choice of washing machines should also opt for front-load ones instead of top-load ones, since the Bren study found that top-load machines create 5.3 times more fiber shedding. Ruff says the researchers still aren’t sure why this is the case, but think it has to do with the machines’ central agitator, which creates friction by grinding against the clothes. Front-load machines, on the other hand, just move the clothes against themselves.

But the easiest thing people can do, Ruff says, is just wash clothing less. Loughman says that’s a message Patagonia can get behind.

“Patagonia is an outdoorsy company and we sort of pride ourselves on getting dirty and staying dirty sometimes,” she says. “So having dirty clothes is kind of funny, and actually part of a solution to this.”

*This story first appeared on Business Insider

Patagonia’s New Study Finds Fleece Jackets Are a Serious Pollutant

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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.

Your washing machince deserves a closer look. Photo: Urs Siedentop/Stocksy

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.

The study, performed by graduate students at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that during laundering, a single fleece jacket sheds as many as 250,000 synthetic fibers—significantly more than the 1,900 fibers Browne first recorded. Based on an estimate of consumers across the world laundering 100,000 Patagonia jackets each year, the amount of fibers being released into public waterways is equivalent to the amount of plastic in up to 11,900 grocery bags.

The experiment involved five pieces of apparel: three Patagonia fleece jackets, each with slightly different construction, as well as a nylon shell jacket that contains polyester insulation, plus a fifth specimen—a “budget” fleece jacket made by an undisclosed brand. Replicates of each jacket were washed multiple times, both in front-loading and top-loading washing machines. The effluent from each cycle was collected and put through a two-step filtration system that captured fibers with both a 333- and 20-micrometer mesh screen.

The jackets were then put through a 24-hour “killer wash,” which Patagonia uses to simulate the aging of a garment. The researchers did this to test whether older garments might shed more fibers as they age. After repeating the washing tests on these artificially aged jackets, they saw that age indeed increases fiber release by 80 percent.

In previous studies, researchers counted the total number of fibers, but that was not a viable path for this study, which instead calculated their mass. “We fully intended to do counts, but in the volumes of water that we collected and filtered, there were simply so many—hundreds of thousands—of fibers [from each test], we knew quickly that even with five of us [on the research team] we did not have time or energy to [do individual counts],” says Stephanie Karba, the lead researcher on the UCSB team.

Using an equation widely used in the textile industry to determine fiber count based on mass, researchers found that the highest estimate of fibers released from a single jacket was 250,000, and the average across all jackets was 81,317 fibers.

Hoping to publish its detailed methodology in a science journal, the team hasn’t revealed all its findings. But in addition to data about fiber release, the Patagonia report shows that fiber loss is directly related to the type of washing machine and the age of the garment. Garments released five times as many microfibers when washed in top-loading washing machines compared to front-loaders. And aging affected fiber loss differently for different garments based on the type of washer. For example, compared to Patagonia jackets, the average mass of fiber shed from the budget jacket of undisclosed origin was much higher when it was washed at the new stage in a front-loader. But after all the jackets were aged, the Patagonia jackets shed a comparable amount of fibers to the budget jacket. In top-loaders, the budget jacket shed a comparable amount of fiber, on average, to the others when new.

Another surprise: The nylon shell jacket actually released a comparable amount of fiber to the fleece jackets in some tests, and even more in other tests, seeming to indicate that the polyester fill escaped through seams or the shell fabric.

Having reviewed the findings, Richard Thompson, the Plymouth University scientist whose work knocked over the first domino, says Patagonia’s report might be more useful for Patagonia than for the scientific community because it does not take a vastly different approach that Browne’s research. He says he’d have preferred if Patagonia’s tests had been done with the use of detergent (the UCSB researchers say detergent would have clogged the filters, which is also why Browne did not use detergent in his 2011 research) and on a wider selection of apparel items.

“The budget jacket seems to perform worse in some tests but better in others, but even if it performed consistently better or worse, you can still only reach the conclusion for that one budget jacket of unknown origin,” he says. Still, he thinks it was an important first move by industry. “Honestly, some companies might shy away from this; they might not want to open a can of worms. So it’s a environmentally responsible move and potentially quite risky, since there is not much data out there on everyone else’s apparel.”

Add to the list of concerns unique to the outdoor industry: chemical additives in performance apparel (think waterproof-breathable duds) that enter the water along with the fibers.

Of course, apparel companies are far from the only stakeholders being thrust into the spotlight. The role washing machines play in microfiber pollution is also a major concern, and scientists and apparel companies are calling on appliance manufacturers to investigate the efficacy of adding filters to washing machines to capture fibers before they enter wastewater. The problem will grow with the rise in the number of washing machines coming into use globally—Swedish statistician Hans Rosling says 2 billion of the 7 billion people on earth used washing machines in 2010, but he predicts that 5 billion out of the 9 billion humans expected to populate the earth by 2050 will use the appliances.

A study published last month showed that while wastewater treatment plants remove more than 98 percent of plastic fragments from wastewater, they still send an estimated 65 million pieces of microplastics into watersheds each day. Polyester, the main fiber used in fleece, makes up the largest share of the plastics that get through—even though it only accounts for 10.8 percent of the plastic in influent wastewater (water that enters the plant). Also, many fibers that do get captured often end up in environmental sludge, which is sometimes added to fertilizer.

To try to get ahead of the problem, Patagonia and other apparel companies have said they want to research new yarn and fabric constructions to determine whether microfiber shedding can be addressed through better design, something that’s already happening in Europe.

After a 2013 European Commission–funded research program called Mermaids found that surfactants in detergents lead to much higher fiber loss—on the order of 1 million fibers shed from a single fleece jacket—textile specialists in Spain and Italy were tasked with developing a special coating or impregnation that would be applied to the fabric during manufacture and, in theory, reduce the amount of fiber loss. More details on the program are expected in December, but researchers say the coatings being tested and developed are environmentally benign.

The Mermaids program, promoted through the Plastic Soup Foundation, an NGO based in the Netherlands, has also released some guidelines based on its initial research, including suggestions to avoid the use of detergents with high pH, powder detergents, and the use of oxidizing agents. It also suggests washing clothing in cold water and softening hard water, and it released a cheeky video to drive its point home. Clothing company G-Star, which integrates synthetic fibers sourced from plastic ocean debris into the denim jeans it sells, has partnered with the Plastic Soup Foundation to promote the Mermaid program.

In August, at the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City, Patagonia will present the findings to its industry peers. It hopes to partner with the Outdoor Industry Association to turn the UCSB researchers’ testing protocol into an industry standard that would enable all clothing manufacturers to set a benchmark for fiber release from their apparel products. Dumain says it’s important that companies outside the outdoor niche start tracking microfiber issues as well. And she thinks an international third-party testing standards group, such as the ASTM, which has developed testing methods for factors such as sewn seams and flammability of apparel textiles, could also take the protocol and run with it. “It’s right up their alley,” Dumain says.

Unlike laws that restrict manufacturers from adding plastic microbeads to cleaning products, no obvious legislative approaches limit microfiber pollution, and apparel makers would likely prefer to self-impose approaches to reducing fiber loss rather than find themselves in the crosshairs of regulators should scientific evidence that microfibers pose environmental dangers continue to mount.

“We knew this would be step one in testing—to prove the methodology, to understand where we were contributing to the problem, where the industry could be contributing to the problem,” says Dumain. “From here, it’s going to set up a whole lot of testing that needs to happen throughout the apparel industry.”

*This story  first appeared on Outside Online

How your clothes are poisoning our oceans and food supply

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New studies show that alarming numbers of tiny fibers from synthetic fabrics are making their way from your washing machine into aquatic animals

Microplastic pollution is devastating our oceans. New research indicates that the biggest culprit may be the shirt off your back Photograph: Getty Images

The first time professor Sherri Mason cut open a Great Lakes fish, she was alarmed at what she found. Synthetic fibers were everywhere. Under a microscope, they seemed to be “weaving themselves into the gastrointestinal tract”. Though she had been studying aquatic pollution around the Great Lakes for several years, Mason, who works for the State University of New York Fredonia, had never seen anything like it.

New studies indicate that the fibers in our clothes could be poisoning our waterways and food chain on a massive scale. Microfibers – tiny threads shed from fabric – have been found in abundance on shorelines where waste water is released.

Now researchers are trying to pinpoint where these plastic fibers are coming from.

In an alarming study released Monday, researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara found that, on average, synthetic fleece jackets release 1.7 grams of microfibers each wash. It also found that older jackets shed almost twice as many fibers as new jackets. The study was funded by outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia, a certified B Corp that also offers grants for environmental work.

“These microfibers then travel to your local wastewater treatment plant, where up to 40% of them enter rivers, lakes and oceans,” according to findings published on the researchers’ website.

Synthetic microfibers are particularly dangerous because they have the potential to poison the food chain. The fibers’ size also allows them to be readily consumed by fish and other wildlife. These plastic fibers have the potential to bioaccumulate, concentrating toxins in the bodies of larger animals, higher up the food chain.

Microbeads, recently banned in the US, are a better-known variety of microplastic, but recent studies have found microfibers to be even more pervasive.

In a groundbreaking 2011 paper, Mark Browne, now a senior research associate at the University of New South Wales, Australia, found that microfibers made up 85% of human-made debris on shorelines around the world.

While Patagonia and other outdoor companies, like Polartec, use recycled plastic bottles as a way to conserve and reduce waste, this latest research indicates that the plastic might ultimately end up in the oceans anyway – and in a form that’s even more likely to cause problems.

Breaking a plastic bottle into millions of fibrous bits of plastic might prove to be worse than doing nothing at all.

Barrows lobsterboat
Abigail Barrows, principal investigator of the Global Microplastics Initiative, says that microfibers are a bigger problem than most realize Photograph: Veronica Young

Scary science

While the UCSB study is sure to make waves, researchers are consistently finding more and more evidence that microfibers are in many marine environments and in large quantities.

What’s more, the fibers are being found in fresh water as well. “This is not just a coastal or marine problem,” said Abigail Barrows, principal investigator of the Global Microplastics Initiative, part of the research group Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation.

Of the almost 2,000 aquatic samples Barrows has processed, about 90% of the debris was microfibers – both in freshwater and the ocean.

Microfibers are also the second most common type of debris in Lake Michigan, according to Sherri Mason’s research.

Finishing up research into tributaries of the Great Lakes, she’s finding that microfibers are the most common type of debris in those smaller bodies of water. “The majority [71%] of what we’re finding in the tributaries are actually fibers,” Mason said by email. “They exceed fragments and pellets.”

Mason is finding that the wildlife is indeed being affected.

A study out of the University of Exeter, in which crabs were given food contaminated with microfibers, found that they altered animals’ behavior. The crabs ate less food overall,suggesting stunted growth over time. The polypropylene was also broken down and transformed into smaller pieces, creating a greater surface area for chemical transmission. (Plastics leach chemicals such as Bisphenol A – BPA – as they degrade.)

Mason said her concern is not necessarily with the plastic fibers themselves, but with their ability to absorb persistent organic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and to concentrate them in animals’ tissues.

An increasingly toxic problem

Gregg Treinish, founder and executive director of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, which oversees Barrows’s microfibers work, said studies have led him to stop eating anything from the water.

“I don’t want to have eaten fish for 50 years and then say, ‘Oh, whoops’,” Treinish said.

His organization received $9,000 from Patagonia to research microfibers in 2016.

“It absolutely has the potential to move up the food chain,” said Chelsea Rochman, a postdoctoral fellow in conservation biology at the University of California at Davis and the University of Toronto. She cautioned, however, against a rush to avoid fish: “I think no one’s really asked questions directly about that yet.”

Rochman’s own recent study of seafood from California and Indonesia indicates that plastic fibers contaminate the food we eat.

Testing fish and shellfish from markets in both locations, Rochman determined that “all [human-made] debris recovered from fish in Indonesia was plastic, whereas [human-made] debris recovered from fish in the US was primarily fibers”.

Rochman said she can’t yet explain why fish in the US are filled with microfibers. She speculates that washing machines are less pervasive in Indonesia and synthetic, high performance fabrics, such as fleece, which are known to shed a lot of fibers, are not as common in Indonesia.

Tiny plastic fibers taken from a water sample in Blue Hill Bay in the gulf of Maine.
Tiny plastic fibers taken from a water sample in Blue Hill Bay in the gulf of Maine. Photograph: Marine Environmental Research Institute

Industry reacts … slowly

Companies that have built their businesses on the environment have been some of the first to pay attention to the growing microfiber issue. Patagonia proposed the Bren School study in 2015, after polyester, the primary component of outdoor fabrics like fleece, showed up as a major ocean pollutant.

Patagonia is part of a working group, as is Columbia Sportswear and 18 others, studying the issue through the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), a trade group consisting of about 1,300 companies around the world.

“We believe the outdoor industry is likely one of those [industries that contribute to the microfiber issue], but we just don’t know the breadth,” said Beth Jenson, OIA’s director of corporate responsibility.

In an email, Patagonia spokesperson Tessa Byars wrote: “Patagonia is concerned about this issue and we’re taking concerted steps to figure out the impacts that our materials and products – at every step in their lifecycle – may have on the marine environment.”

Miriam Diamond, an earth sciences professor who runs the University of Toronto lab where Rochman now works, said she believes so-called fast fashion could play a larger role than the comparatively smaller outdoor apparel industry. “What I suspect is that some of the cheaper fabrics will more easily shed fibers. It’s probably that the fibers aren’t as long or that they aren’t spun as well,” Diamond said.

Inditex, which owns Zara and Massimo Duti among others, said microfibers fall into the category of issues covered by its Global Water Strategy, which includes ongoing plans to evaluate and improve wastewater management at its mills.

H&M declined to comment on the microfiber issue, as did Topshop , which responded by email “we are not quite ready to make an official statement on this issue”.

Time to take action

Mark Browne, the researcher responsible for first bringing microfibers to public attention, said that the grace period is over.

“We know that these are the most abundant forms of debris – that they are in the environment,” Brown said. He added that government and industry must be asked to explain “what they are going to be doing about it”.

The Amsterdam-based Plastic Soup Foundation, an ocean conservation project co-funded by the European Union, said better quality clothing or fabrics coated with an anti-shed treatment could help.

The foundation’s director, Maria Westerbos, said a nanoball that could be thrown into a washing machine to attract and capture plastic fibers also seems promising.

Another solution may lie with waterless washing machines, one of which is being developed by Colorado-based Tersus Solutions. Tersus, with funding from Patagonia, has developed a completely waterless washing machine in which textiles are washed in pressurized carbon dioxide.

Others suggest a filter on home washing machines. More than 4,500 fibers can be released per gram of clothing per wash, according to preliminary data from the Plastic Soup Foundation.

But the washing machine industry is not yet ready to act. Jill Notini, vice president of communications and marketing for the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, said the washing machine could very well be a source of microfiber debris, but that the proposed solutions are impractical.

“How do you possibly retrofit all of the units that are in the market and then add a filter in and talk to consumers and say, ‘Here is a new thing that you’re going to have to do with your clothes washer?’”

She added that the industry still has trouble getting people to clean lint from the filters in their dryers.

For Plastic Soup’s Westerbos, the reluctance of the industries that operate in that crucial place between the consumer and the world’s waterways can no longer be tolerated.

“It’s really insulting that they say it’s not their problem,” Westerbos said. “It’s their problem, too. It’s everybody’s problem.”

*This story first appeared on The Guardian.

Microplastics, Microfibers, Pollution and….the Outdoor Industry

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By Nikki Hodgson

Instagram @5gyres
Instagram @5gyres

Either you’ve been hearing a lot about microplastics lately or you haven’t been paying attention. The minuscule byproducts from cosmetics and clothing are causing big problems for the environment. Here’s a quick overview of what they are, why they’re problematic and what the outdoor industry is doing to mitigate their effects.

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are small plastic particles (generally between 1 and 5mm) that come from a wide variety of consumer products and sources, including cosmetics, clothing and industrial processes. Because of their size, microplastics can end up in waterways and marine ecosystems when clothing is washed or when cosmetic products are washed down the drain.

What are microfibers?

There is some evidence to suggest that one source of microplastics may be microfibers (also called microplastic fibers), which enter waterways when polyester and acrylic garments are washed.

Why is this a problem?

Microplastics, including microfibers, are showing up in the environment at high levels, particularly in marine ecosystems. In 2008, UNESCO estimated that around 245 metric tons are produced per year. These plastic particles persist in marine ecosystems for many years and attract toxins like DDT and BPA, which are ingested by smaller marine life, moving up the food chain and then found in the tissues of larger organisms.

Much of the environmental impacts and subsequent health effects of microplastics and microfibers are not yet completely understood, and research is currently underway to further investigate and better understand the impacts these may have on our ecosystems.

What is the outdoor industry doing to address this?

Since 2007, the OIA Sustainability Working Group has been working to address the environmental and social impacts of our global supply chains, utilizing a pre-competitive, collaborative model to convene industry stakeholders around important supply chain topics such as chemicals management, materials traceability and social responsibility. We are also now exploring the issue of microfiber pollution.Screenshot 2015-07-07 08.43.22

This is an emerging issue; robust data around the environmental impacts and the potential role played by the apparel industry and other industries is scarce at present. Our first priority is to seek out more data, in order to clearly understand the impacts and identify our best leverage points as an industry. We need to know exactly what we’re up against and where it makes the most sense for us to engage – where we can have the greatest impact and where other industries or stakeholders may have an important role to play. We also need to identify practices that we can adopt and scale across an entire industry. And we need to balance this issue against the many others that are critical to our industry, like phasing out hazardous chemicals, or protecting labor rights and fair wages of all those involved in making our products, or ensuring the ethical sourcing of animal products such as wool, down and leather.

In January 2015, Nicholas Mallos of the Ocean Conservancy spoke at the OIA Sustainability Insights Conference at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market. With over one hundred outdoor industry supply chain and sustainability leaders in the room, Nicholas provided an overview of some of the threats microplastics and microfibers pose to our ecosystems and discussed some of the research being done to better understand what industries can do to mitigate these impacts.

Screenshot 2015-07-07 08.39.56As a follow-up to our in-person meetings and conference at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market, we will be hosting another discussion around microplastics and microfibers during the Sustainability Insights Conference at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market on August 4th. Representatives from Patagonia and the Hohenstein Institute will discuss some of the existing efforts and challenges, from identifying data gaps to exploring solutions with the appliance and washing machine industry, in order to further continue the conversation around how industry can most effectively address and mitigate microplastic pollution.

The next steps for the OIA SWG on this issue will include:

  • Aligning with impartial, data-driven issue experts such as the Ocean Conservancy to help us better understand the impacts.
  • Promoting awareness of this issue within the outdoor industry community.
  • Identifying leverage points and convening an industry group to develop tools and resources around best practices.

What can you do?

**This article first appeared on the Outdoor Industry Association blog here.