A month ago, a reader named Ida left the following comment in the “100 Steps” section of this website:
For your Clothes section you never mention that the plastic clothes we have release high levels of plastic microfibers in every wash! This is pretty new knowledge, but hugely important as we cannot as of today find a way to remove from the sea. So when asked, I usually tell people to stop buying fleece, acrylic etc, but also to handwash what they have, which at least might lessen the problem… :)
I was as surprised as she was. I thought for sure I’d blogged about microfiber pollution. So I checked. As it turns out, I addressed the topic in the updated edition of my book, but I never posted about it on this site. Fortunately, the Story of Stuff Project has not been slacking like me. They have just released a brand new video and campaign called The Story of Microfibers. It explains what happens when we launder synthetic clothing and what we can do to hold clothing manufacturers accountable.
Please watch this short video:
What’s Wrong With Microfibers?
Microfibers are released into wastewater when we wash synthetic fabrics, fabrics such as polyester, acrylic, lycra, spandex, nylon, and any other textiles made from long-chain man-made polymers. All fabrics release microfibers in the wash, but the microfibers from synthetics are problematic because they don’t biodegrade. Instead, they add to the ever increasing problem of microplastic pollution in the world’s oceans and other bodies of water. According to a 2012 article posted on the Algalita Marine Research Foundation website:
Although we don’t usually think of polyester fabrics as plastic per se, polyester is nonetheless a plastic material synthesized from crude oil and natural gas. And, like other plastics, polyester is a long polymer chain, making it non-biodegradable in any practical human scale of time, especially in the ocean because of the cooler temperatures.
In fact, as long ago as 2011, we learned that microfibers from laundry have been washing up on the world’s beaches. According to the Algalita article (emphasis mine):
As reported in a November 2011 issue of the journal Environmental Science & Technology, a single polyester item can produce more than 1,900 fibers in one washing. Every article tested produced more than 100 microfibers per liter of wastewater, and the worst offenders were the fleeces.
The researchers also provided strong evidence linking polyester from laundering to ocean pollution. They found that every one of 18 shorelines sampled across the globe was fouled with microplastic fibers, predominantly of polyester. The shorelines of more densely populated areas or where sewage is discharged were the most contaminated.
Microplastic pollution from any source (microfibers from laundry, microbeads from personal care products, pre-production plastic resin pellets (aka nurdles) from industry, or plastic particles from the breakdown of larger plastic objects) is a problem in our oceans because it mixes with the zooplankton (the lowest level of the food chain), which is then consumed by fish, making its way up to the food we eat. A 2015 study (PDF) found that one in four food fish from markets in California and Indonesia had detectable plastic particles in their guts. And a 2013 study (PDF) found that because plastics are lipophilic and can attract oil-based persistent organic pollutants such as PCB, ingested plastics can accumulate and transfer those pollutants to the flesh of the sea animals we consume.
While microfibers from laundry are not the only source of microplastic pollution, they are part of the problem, a part we can reduce.
Holding Manufacturers Responsible for Microfiber Pollution
So, if we have known about the problem of microfibers since 2011, why haven’t we done anything about it? Ecologist Mark Browne, who ran the 2011 study, reached out to companies like Nike, Polartec, and even Patagonia, which makes fleece and other polyester clothing out of recycled plastics, but those companies would not listen. It wasn’t until the issue started getting a lot of press that Patagonia commissioned its own study on microfiber pollution, a study that was finally published in 2016, five years after Mark Browne’s first study was published.
Patagonia’s conclusion? All clothing has an environmental impact. (True.) But in the case of synthetics, we should wash them less often, use front loading machines, and buy a special bag to trap the fibers. That’s my simplistic interpretation of the company’s June 20, 2016, blog post. Clearly, those steps are not enough to solve the problem if apparel companies are going to continue to manufacture and sell synthetic clothing. And those steps place the burden of reducing microfiber pollution on their customers rather than changing the way their clothing is made.
Last month, Patagonia published an update on their site, announcing that they have begun a new study to help them investigate ways to minimize fiber shedding by improving fabric construction.
The second study, which has only just begun, is being conducted in partnership with North Carolina State University with the goals of better understanding characteristics in fibers and fabrics that lead to microfiber release and developing a rapid test method to assess the potential of fabrics to shed during laundering—both of which will help Patagonia and our industry conduct R&D for new materials moving forward.
This is a great step, but why did it take the company so long to address the problem with the construction of their clothing? And if Patagonia, a company with a core mission to protect the environment, has taken so long to react, imagine how long it will take mainstream companies. We don’t have time to wait. We must act now.
Take Action to Hold Companies Accountable for Microfiber Pollution
Please sign The Story of Stuff’s petition to stop microfiber plastic pollution. By signing, you call on clothing brands to:
- Publicly acknowledge the seriousness of the pollution threat that microfibers pose
- Commit to investments of time and resources to investigate and test potential Solutions
- Share what they learn with each other and the public.
Once you and thousands of other Story of Stuff Community members sign on to this petition, we’ll present your signatures to the largest clothing brands in the world, inviting them to attend a summit organized by the Story of Stuff Project. The summit will assess research, propose solutions, and generate timelines for systemic action to solve microfiber pollution. We will also ask these companies for specific commitments so that we can objectively gauge progress and engage in serious and constructive conversations aimed at ending microfiber pollution.
Read more about why The Story of Stuff feels this is the right approach (rather than simply relying on consumer behavior changes or better washing machine technology.)
Buy Clothing With Less Plastic
While the microfiber problem is not going to be solved by a few of us eschewing synthetic clothing, I want you to know that there are options out there for plastic-free or reduced-plastic clothing. In my experience, the hardest things to find are options for underwear, athletic wear, and tights. In my next post, I will share a few of the clothing brands I have found that are either synthetic-free or contain just a fraction of synthetic materials. In the meantime, check out my 2014 post “Running with Less Plastic” for a few ideas.