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Plastic Microfibers, Dirty Laundry, and the Next Big Threat to our Ocean

Have you ever noticed your favorite fleece jacket thinning over the years? How about after you’ve washed it even just a couple times? It turns out this is not your eyes playing a trick on you. With every wash your fleece is literally getting thinner, in fact, up to 250,000 microfibers thinner!

recent study commissioned by the eco-conscious adventure retailer Patagonia, and conducted by graduate student researchers at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, found that hundreds of thousands of synthetic microfibers can get released every time you wash your fleece jacket. Just like the majority of our plastic pollution, much of these fibers can also end up in the ocean (an estimated 40% of all released fibers). Unfortunately, the shape, size, and sheer magnitude of these particles have opened up a whole new can of worms for our already suffering marine environment, with potentially serious threats to human health.

Fleece jackets are just one of the many products in the 'synthetic apparel industry.' Synthetic apparel is clothing partially made from virgin or recycled plastics that have been turned into tiny fibrous plastic materials. These fibers can be as small as half the size of a red blood cell, and are referred to as microfibers. When the source of the material is recycled plastics, microfibers have generally been considered an affordable and sustainable material that diverts plastics away from the landfill. Yet results from a variety of recent studies indicate that this recycled clothing technique may have been causing more harm than good.

The Bren researchers estimated that 100,000 synthetic Patagonia jackets getting washed a single time would release an amount of plastic microfibers equivalent to 11,900 plastic bags directly into local water bodies. Even more alarming, this value is an underestimate of the true impact, since lower quality fleece jackets can shed up to 200% more microfibers than certain Patagonia jackets. In the state of California alone, it is estimated that billions of microfibers escape wastewater treatment plants every day.

Once in the marine environment, these particles tend to collect in deeper seas and bottom sediments, where they are ingested or inhaled through the gills of various crustaceans, small fish, and other creatures near the bottom of the food chain. These plastics can fill the bellies of very small marine animals without providing any nutrients; so though animals may feel full, they are actually starving. Additionally, microfibers move up the food chain when these small animals are eaten by larger fish, a mechanism known as bioaccumulation.

Not only does the ingestion of microfibers reduce the amount of nutrition obtained from feeding, it also poses an additional risk of harmful bacteria and toxic exposure. Of all chemicals known to be persistent in our environment, bioaccumulative in the food chain, and toxic to life (also known as PBTs), 78% are found in or on microfibers. As a result, the concentrations of PBTs in microfibers are orders of magnitude greater than the concentration of PBTs otherwise found in seawater. Examples of observed PBTs included pesticides like DDT, and plastic additives like brominated flame retardants.

Human health is also at stake. Studies have found that consumed microfibers can actually enter and remain in the bloodstream and tissues of the food we eat. The bioaccumulation of these toxic chemicals puts all affected marine creatures, and wildlife that consume affected marine creatures, at risk – including marine mammals, seabirds, and yes, even humans! A 2015 study found that one in three shellfish, and one in four finfish sampled at a California fish market contained microfibers, and these fish were headed straight for the dinner table. It is estimated that people could be unknowingly ingesting 11,000 microfibers each year from shellfish consumption, and 178 microfibers from eating a single mussel.

Beyond risks from consumption, the sheer magnitude of the amount of microfibers throughout marine and coastal environments can have serious ecological implications. Studies have identified a reduction in oyster reproduction rates, and impacts to the sexual determination of baby sea turtles from the slowed warming rates of sandy sediment containing microfibers, among other effects.

Unfortunately this is not a local or regional problem able to be mitigated by beach clean up efforts. Ecologist and university researcher Mark Anthony Browne was part of a multiyear and multinational study to identify the extent of the microfiber pollution problem. In a 2012 interview, Browne mentioned that his research group “basically found micro-plastic in every single sample that we looked at across the 18 sites from the poles to the equator”. The research sampled beach sand across the world and found that each cup of sand contained as many as 31 microfibers.

It must be said that Patagonia deserves credit for its leadership in investigating this emerging issue and putting its own products under the microscope. While this is clearly an industry wide problem – and study findings suggest that cheaper products from other companies may have worse effects - Patagonia’s decision is both bold and potentially risky.  Surfrider applauds the company for its efforts to improve understanding of plastic pollution issues, consistent with the leadership it has displayed as an environmentally conscious retailer over many decades.

So what can we do to help? It is important to understand the problem, what your clothing is made of, and make informed consumer choices. Investing in clothing that sheds less plastic fibers could help stop the problem at the source. There are also superior technologies for washing clothes, with newer, less water intensive washing machines helping to abate the problem. It is best to reduce the amount of times synthetic clothes are washed, and once necessary use front-loading, high efficiency washing machines instead of top-loading washing machines. The Bren School researchers found that top-loading washing machines released 5X more microfibers than front-loading washing machines; and the more you wash it, the worse it gets (aged jackets released almost 2X the amount as new jackets). When possible, avoid powder detergents and wash clothing at a low temperature.

This problem may also be able to be addressed through better municipal water recycling efforts, which Surfrider Foundation is also actively working to promote. Current wastewater treatment facilities do not provide fine enough filters to capture microfibers. If water is properly filtered and reused, instead of being pumped into the ocean, then the marine life and public health impacts of microfibers may be avoided.

Other ways to help are to promote efforts by manufacturers to switch to more ocean-friendly clothing materials, include a warning label with the above recommendations on care methods, and follow the example of Patagonia by conducting similar studies to understand the breadth of potential pollution created by their products. A handful of organizations have attempted to take the task of finding a solution into their own hands, like the innovative “microfiber catcher” currently under development by the Rozalia Project. For more information about the dangers of microfibers and the various sources used in this blog, check out Surfrider’s microfiber Beachapedia page.