Ocean waste

Yoga Pants, Fleece Jackets and the Microplastics Dilemma

Posted on Updated on

shutterstock_544138324
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

Advertisements

Microfibers from Clothes Contaminating Marine Environment

Posted on Updated on

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.

fiber-2
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

Plastic Waste is Fashion’s New Sustainability Gimmick

Posted on Updated on

Looking for the latest in eco-friendly fashion? One word: plastics.

H&M announced on Tuesday that it will debut its second Conscious Exclusive campaign — an upscale version of its Conscious Collection program founded in 2012 — which includes formal wear for men, women and children. The line uses recycled polyester made from plastic waste, an estimated eight million tons of which litters oceans each year, and is slated to be available in 160 stores around the globe in late April. The move comes shortly after Adidas partnered with Parley for the Oceans, a nonprofit that reduces oceanic plastic waste, to make running shoes made almost entirely out of discarded plastic.

For the H&M line, the Swedish retailer teamed with Bionic Yarn, a New York-based company that turns plastic bottles into technical yarns and fabrics. The signature piece of H&M’s line is a blush pink pleated gown (which retails for $249) modeled by Natalia Vodianova, who was tapped to be the face of this year’s Conscious Exclusive campaign. Singer Pharrell Williams serves as as Bionic Yarn’s creative director, and has previously teamed up with brands like Timberland and G-Star on footwear and denim that use the bionic yarn technology.

grass-honey-collage
Pharrell Williams Bionic Yarn collection for Timberland.

“It’s an excellent PR stunt, for H&M to raise awareness about ocean pollution — along with Adidas’ partnership with Parley for the Ocean,” said Lauren Slowik, outreach coordinator and design evangelist at 3-D printing company Shapeways. “But I like to hope that ocean trash is a finite resource and not something we can build whole industries on. The only real positive I see is that it helps to bring supply chain and production of materials to the forefront on consumers’ minds.”

H&M and Adidas said their ocean plastic efforts were designed to be more than just ploys to attract eco-conscious consumers. Adidas began selling its recycled shoes for $220 in November 2016 with a commitment to making a minimum of 1 million pairs by the end of 2017. It also plans to team with Parley on communication, education and research efforts.

Meanwhile, H&M is attempting to increase its percentage of garments made from sustainable materials, which was reported at 20 percent in 2015. It also asserts to be one of the biggest users of recycled polyester and organic cotton, and has a lofty goal for all cotton to be sustainably sourced by 2020.

However, despite its commitment to sustainability, H&M has still been vague in its transparency efforts and faces ongoing criticism for being a fast fashion retailer that is still using significant resources to produce low-priced goods. Natalie Grillon, founder of Project Just, told Glossy in a previous article that despite the assertions made against the company, H&M has still made strides in efforts like employee wages.

“H&M comes under fire a lot for their initiatives because they do publicize it,” said Grillon. “When really, they’ve made a ton of effort in support of better wages. But then they talk about it a lot, and then they come under fire a lot for anything at all that goes wrong.”

*This story first appeared on Glossy

Fast-fashion Retailer H&M “Conscious” to Deliver Sustainable Solutions

Posted on Updated on

H&M's new 'Conscious' collectionIt may surprise you that 95 per cent of all textiles thrown away across the globe each year could be recycled. With this in mind, in 2013 H&M launched the world’s biggest retail garment collecting system. Since then the high-street retailer have introduced new collections which contain 20 per cent recycled cotton from their garment collecting programme. There was more exciting news from the press room yesterday as H&M have just announced an exclusive 2017 Conscious Collection using Bionic material – a recycled polyester from recovered shoreline waste.

Additionally, this week Emily O’Dowd spoke to Mattias Bodin, a Sustainability Business Expert for Materials and Innovations at H&M. He explained that the company have been very early contributors to the sustainable economy. In this interview, Mattias provides an insight into his role and his 14 years of experience with the company, along with some of the solutions that H&M have been making to improve their sustainability performance. He is just one of 200 employees looking to explore how this retail giant can improve their sustainability targets. With the ethos, affordability meets responsibility, H&M believe that “looking good should do good too.”

H&M (Hennes & Mauritz) is a Swedish multinational clothing corporation identitfied on the high-street for its fast fashion in 62 countries across the world. It is the second largest global retailer. But as more of us are becoming aware, the textile industry is the second most polluting industry in the world. This negative media attention has meant that retailers like @hm are finding solutions across the supply chain to make their businesses more environmentally friendly. Mattias informs @Bio_BasedWorld that H&M was one of the first clothing retailers to set the benchmark for sustainable business. So in 2013 they launched a garment collecting initiative in an attempt to change some of their customers’ mindsets as well as their attitude towards recycling textiles. As part of the scheme, a shopper can donate second-hand clothes to H&M in any UK store and they will receive a £5 voucher or a 15% discount in participating European shops.

H&M then sells the donated clothes onto I:CO (I Collect) a Swiss based recycling start-up who sells the garments onto second-hand or vintage markets. The clothes in poor condition are then converted for other use or upcycled into textile fibres. Like most other retailers, the company does not own any factories but works with independent suppliers instead.

What are the challenges?

Unfortunately, the amount of textile recyclers in the market to promote this activity are very few and far between. Whilst, many polyester manufacturers will now offer recycled polyester, the uptake of other recycled textiles remains small. Additionally, the textile industry is lacking essential technological advancements to convert unwanted fabrics into their natural fibres. The only method at the moment – mechanical recycling, is still costly and far from perfect. It looks highly unrealistic that clothing will become 100 per cent recyclable any time soon. Despite this, since H&M launched the initiative, 32,000 tonnes of garments have been recycled and reused amounting to the production of 100 million t-shirts. So any step, however small in this polluting industry is a step in the right direction.

H&M’s brand new Conscious Exclusive range

H&M are excited to announce their new Conscious range which is hoping to change the stigma towards environmentally friendly fashion. The collection will be available in 160 stores worldwide and online from April 2017. But for the first time in the high-street fashion history, H&M have designed bold statement dresses made from recovered plastic from shorelines. The Bionic Yarn is soft and adaptable, flexible enough to make anything from jeans to cocktail dresses.

“For the design team at H&M, this year’s Conscious Exclusive is a chance to dream and create pieces that are both quirky and beautiful. It’s great to be able to show just what is possible with sustainable materials like we have done with the delicate plissé dress made of BIONIC,” Pernilla Wohlfahrt, H&M’s Head of Design and Creative Director. In addition to a full collection for women and relaxed formal wear for men, the collection will for the first time include kids’ pieces, as well as a Conscious Exclusive fragrance made from organic oils.

Conscious Exclusive is the drive in H&M’s move towards a more sustainable fashion future. Across all of H&M’s product ranges, 20 per cent are now made from more sustainable materials (2015), with the aim each year to increase the share. H&M is one of the world’s biggest users of recycled polyester and one of the biggest buyers of organic cotton. The goal for cotton is that it is to be 100 per cent sustainably sourced by 2020.

The Journey of a Dress. New for the 2017 H&M Conscious Exclusive collection is the material bionic

 

To find out more, Mattias provides a personal account of his experience with H&M and how we can all help to improve the future of the textile industry.

Mattias Bodin will be a guest speaker at this year’s Bio-Based Live conference in partnership with the University of Amsterdam. 

Emily O’Dowd (EOD): What first led you to your role with H&M?


Mattias Bodin (MB):
Environmental issues have always interested me. I studied a Mattias Bodin-1.jpgchemical engineering degree at university and I hadn’t even considered working in the textile industry before. It wasn’t until a friend of mind told me that H&M were looking to fill a chemist vacancy that I conducted further research into the company and the textile industry as a whole. I came to the conclusion that there are some big environmental challenges within the industry, so I
wanted to be part of finding solutions. Since then I have been with the company for 14 years working with sustainablity concerning chemicals, product safety, regulatory and the supply chain. Last year, I changed roles within the company so now I have an even broader focus on the environment.

EOD: How has H&M’s sustainability focus changed over the 14 years that you have been with the company?

MB: H&M was very early to begin working with sustainable materials, but during the last 14 years it has become a very important topic on everyone’s agenda. Consumers are more informed today the industry’s efforts have increased drastically and our knowledge has improved. I believe we are in a position to be an important change-maker to really contribute and make a difference to the sustainable industry.

EOD: What do you enjoy most about your role?

MB: For me, I think H&M’s resources and their strong commitment to sustainability is very important. It not only helps our production process, but it also has the potential to make an impact in the industry as a whole. Additionally, the company’s management team have a long-term view when it comes to improving our environmental efforts. This means we are more successful when it comes to implementing longstanding solutions.

EOD: What is the biggest challenge that you have faced in the industry?

MB: I think at the moment it is a combination of two things – investment and commitment. Our biggest challenge has been sourcing and testing new materials. When they need to be produced on a large scale it means that more investment is needed to develop a new material or process. As a result, this can be a barrier for the textile industry.

EOD: What advice would you give for someone starting work in the sustainable/bio-based industry?

MB: I would say that it is very difficult to do it yourself. You need to look for opportunities to work with other like-minded individuals, companies or organisations. At H&M, we even like to work with our competitors to help each other’s confidence and improve all of our positions when we are working with the supply chain.

EOD: When you say that you are collaborating with your competitors, what sort of competitors are they?

MB: In my case it would be other retailers, because we are all sharing the same challenges. Therefore, it is better if we come to new solutions together.

EOD: What single change would help develop sustainable industry further?

MB: I think that consumer understanding is key. If we can get concrete examples to show the number of possibilities of how unwanted clothes can be turned into new garments, I think this would really help consumers engage and contribute to the sustainable economy. If materials were better bench-marked to help both the consumer and the producer make informed decisions we would see even bigger changes in the industry. Recycling technologies also need to develop to enable a circular economy.

EOD: Where do you hope to see H&M in 5 years’ time?

MB: We are already in a position to be change-makers in this industry, so I would like us to continue leading this change. Additionally, I would like to see us using more recycled and sustainably sourced materials in our manufacturing processes. Bio-synthetics are also developing, so I hope that these will become a natural component for all retailers to use in the textile industry.

EOD: How successful has the garment clothing collection been? 

MB: Since launching this initiative a couple of years ago, many fabrics have become new products that we now sell in store. We are however still in the process of improving our technology because there is a lot of potential here. It would be a real success if we could upcycle as much of the fabric as possible. We appear to be only one of the retail companies actively pushing this so we hope this will eventually work in our favour. After all, it has the potential to benefit the consumer, the sustainable supply chain and ultimately the environment.

EOD: Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk to Bio-Based World News today Mattias; we wish you success with the new launch of H&M’s Conscious range!

*This story first appeared on Bio-based World News

adidas and Ocean Parley Team Up to Create Trainers and Football Tops from Upcycled Marine Plastic

Posted on Updated on

adidas trainer-min.jpegWe are all aware that millions of tons worth of plastic waste is washed up on shores across the world endangering marine animals and polluting our waters. In a recently study, 40 million pounds of plastic was left floating in the North Pacific Ocean alone. These facts were enough to encourage the iconic adidas sportswear fashion brand to work alongside Ocean Parley which is an environmental group raising awareness for pollution in our oceans. This partnership has delivered some exciting news which has seen the production of 7,000 pairs of trainers made from ocean waste. But this is not all, they have also created the first football jersey made from upcycled marine debris which was debuted by Mayern Munich and Real Madrid earlier this month.

This long-term partnership was first initiated in 2015 when adidas ( @adidas ) saw the importance in creating a new future for the sporting and fashion industry. adidas is a multinational corporation with a huge influence over sportswear. It is the largest sports clothing manufacturer in Europe and the second largest in the world. Having this sort of influence meant that more could be done to develop innovative new products with sustainable solutions. In a statement in 2015 Eric Liedtke, adidas’ Group Executive Board Member responsible forglobal brands said: “The conservation of the oceans is a cause that is close to my heart and those of many employees at the adidas Group. By partnering with Parley for the Oceans ( @parleyxxx ) we are contributing to a great environmental cause. We co-create fabrics made from Ocean Plastic waste which we will integrate into our product.”

The first fashion initiative was designed by the London designer Alexander Taylor. adidas’ exclusive trainers have the identical manufacturing process as their existing footwear but the process replaces synthetic fibres with yarns made from recycled Parley Ocean plastic. The knitted upper section of the shoe is made from 95% ocean plastic and 5% recycled polyester. In a unique design inspired by the ocean’s movement, a green wave pattern is created from recycled grill net and recycled into the fibre. The rest of the trainer is formed using waste plastic collected from around the Maldives where the government is collaborating with Parley to extract the plastic waste over the next five years. At a price of £178 (€200), the shoes, which contain 11 plastic bottles, will appear in adidas’ stores next month.

Real Madrid's sustainable football kit.This is not all the companies have been producing. Earlier this month, they debuted their latest football jersey tops made from up-cycled marine plastic debris. The adidas Parley football jerseys will be worn commercially for the first time when Bayern Munich faced Hoffenheim November 5 and again when Real Madrid competed with Real Sporting de Gijón November 26. Made from Parley Ocean Plastic, the water-based environmentally friendly prints, the all-white Real Madrid and all-red Bayern Munich kits feature the club logo, three stripes and sponsors’ logos in the same colour as the kit for a unique look.

Eric Liedtke, adidas Group Executive Board member responsible for Global Brands, said: “This represents another step on the journey of adidas and Parley for the Oceans. We have not only managed to make footwear from recycled ocean plastic, but have also created the first jersey coming 100% out of the ocean. But we won’t stop there. We will make one million pairs of shoes using Parley Ocean Plastic in 2017 – and our ultimate ambition is to eliminate virgin plastic from our supply chain.”

So What Sustainable Targets have adidas Outlined for 2017?

Their latest target will see at least eleven million bottles retrieved from coastal areas by the Parley Global Clean-up Network which will be recycled and re-purposed into elite performance sportswear. Next year the collaboration hope to create another million pairs of trainers. This plan forms part of a larger commitment by the brand to increase the use of sustainable materials in its products and to make eco-innovation the new industry standard as well as ending the cycle of marine plastic pollution in the long term.

“At this point, it’s no longer just about raising awareness. It’s about taking action and implementing strategies that can end the cycle of plastic pollution for good. Eco innovation is an open playing field. With the release of the Ocean Plastic jerseys and UltraBOOST Uncaged adidas x Parley shoes, we’re inviting every consumer, player, team and fan to own their impact under Parley A.I.R. and define their role within the movement,” said Cyrill Gutsch, Founder, Parley for the Oceans.

*This story first appeared on Bio-Based World News

How your clothes are poisoning our oceans and food supply

Posted on Updated on

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

5200
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.
Pinterest
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

Posted on

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.