Legal, Plastic Pollution
November 22 2016

Searching for Solutions: Microfibers

by Angela Howe

The search for a solution to microfiber pollution in our ocean is a difficult endeavor, but one that Surfrider Foundation is determined to tackle. Scientists are still beginning to understand the effects of plastic pollution on marine life who suffer injury and death through entanglement and ingestion of plastic.  Now we’ve discovered that there is a new microscopic form of plastic pollution entering our waterways from the washing of clothing that includes nylon, acrylic, and PET materials. The agitation and centrifuging occurring during the wash cycle releases micro- and nano-plastic fibers into the wastewater stream that end up in sewers, rivers, and the ocean.

Surfrider Foundation was fortunate to host a webinar this month to explore the cutting-edge science investigating microfibers from University of California Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management informing us about the nature and threat of microfibers.  In addition, an industry perspective on this new development was presented. The presentation also addresses possible responses and solutions to the problem.

First, it may be useful to include a few definitions:
•Microplastics – broad range of tiny plastic particles, including plastic fragments and plastic fibers
•Microbeads - very small polyethylene or polypropylene spheres that are widely used in cosmetics, skin care and personal care industries
•Microfibers -  micron-scale synthetic fibers, mostly polyester and acrylic. Microfibers are smaller than a human hair and can be as small as half the size of a red blood cell.

Microplastics (including microfibers) are easily ingested by marine life which may end up on our dinner plates. Essentially the plastics we are washing down the drain with our laundry may work their way up the food chain. Most plastic pollution poses threats to marine life through ingestion and entanglement, but since these fibers are so small, the real threat to marine life is from toxic and bacterial exposure, leached from the plastic. 78% of all chemicals known to be persistent in our environment, bioaccumulative in the food chain, and toxic to life (also known as Persistent Organic Pollutants – for instance pesticides and flame retardants, endocrine disruptors, etc) are found in or on microfibers. Furthermore, microfibers seem to be getting stuck inside fish in ways that other microplastics do not - they become enmeshed in the gastrointestinal tracts of some fish.

In terms of solutions, we can address (1) the source of microfibers (i.e. synthetic, laundered cloth), (2) appliances and technologies, and (3) wastewater systems. Microfibers are present in all synthetic clothing, including fleece and anything made with polyester. The more agitation and more water is used in the laundering process, the more microfiber release occurs. So one can reduce the amount of times synthetic clothes are washed. There may be a role for the appliance industry to play, with technology advancements and retrofits, in addressing the threat of microfibers in our wastewater system. The UCSB research revealed that top-loading washing machines cause microfiber shedding at a rate almost six times as high as front-loading.  Those machines with higher water efficiency also result in less shedding during the washing process.  This is also an innovative “microfiber catcher” currently in prototype stage by the Rozalia Project, which one can place in the washing machine with synthetic clothing.  Another design improvement would be to place a microfiber catchment system on washing machine discharge hoses.

Finally, there is potential to address this issue through wastewater treatment plants.  Currently, wastewater treatment plant removal rates only capture approximately 85% of the microfibers that come through our wastewater system and are addressed by mostly secondary treatment.  Plants that offer tertiary treatment or reverse osmosis (for recycled water) would elimate the threat of microfibers with full capture.  As an additional benefit for recycled water, this is a great form of reuse that is needed in drought areas like Southern California AND it closes the loop on pollution.

Surfrider Foundation would like to extend a special thanks to the panelists for this webinar, who have been at the forefront of microfiber research and policy:

Bess Ruff - UCSB Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. This is the program that kicked off the most comprehensive research on microfibers to date and informed us all with a September 30th, 2016, published research in Environmental Science & Technology under the title "Microfiber Masses Recovered from Conventional Machine Washing of New or Aged Garments".  Bess is also a Research Fellow at Sustainable Fisheries Group at Santa Barbara.

Elissa Loughman - Senior Manager of Product Responsibility at Patagonia. She is responsible for researching and measuring the environmental impacts of Patagonia’s products and developing and implementing programs aimed at reducing those impacts. Elissa has been working on environmental projects for Patagonia for twelve years. Prior to working in her current position at Patagonia, Elissa worked as an Environmental Specialist for the City of Ventura. Elissa has a BS degree in Zoology from UC Santa Barbara, Master’s degree in Environmental Science and Management from the Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management and a Doctorate of Environmental Science and Engineering from UCLA.

To learn more about microfibers, visit the Beachapedia page and stay connected with Surfrider's plastic pollution initiative to prevent and reduce the harms of plastic pollution on our ocean, waves and beaches.