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Plastic Microfibers: Recent Findings and Potential Solutions

Plastic microfiber pollution is a new topic of environmental and human health concern, with the most alarming findings released in just the last year! 

These are tiny plastic fibers, about half the size of a red blood cell, which split off from products made of synthetic plastic material, including your favorite workout clothes made from nylon, fleece, and polyester. The fibers are so small that they escape wastewater treatment facilities and enter freshwater bodies and the ocean, where they can be inhaled or eaten by plankton. Plastic microfibers then move all the way up the food chain to the fish and shellfish we purchase for consumption! For instance - 1 in 4 finfish sampled at a California fish market contained plastic microfibers; and in Germany, chemists found plastic microfibers in all 24 beers sampled. To put the magnitude of microfiber release into perspective, a 2016 study pioneered by Patagonia Outfitters and conducted by the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management found that a single fleece jacket shed up to 250,000 microfibers during a single wash.

Zooplankton eating plastic particles. Photo credit: Five Films in collaboration with Plymouth Marine Laboratory

For a quick summary on the issue, check out this video from the Story of Stuff!

Since the 2016 Patagonia study, there has been a concerted response from the outdoor retailer, entrepreneurial, and scientific community to better understand the issue and identify solutions. The response includes new research to study the conditions and material types that cause the most microfiber shedding at the polymer level and the creation of manufacturer collaborations working to coordinate research efforts and develop solutions. One of these associations is the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) Microfiber Task Force, and includes 150 adventure retailers and suppliers like The North Face, Patagonia, and Burton.

The Surfrider Foundation is committed to educating our members and the public about the causes and effects of microfiber pollution and how you can be part of the solution. Here is a brief summary of the some of the solutions that dedicated individuals, manufacturer associations, and environmental organizations (like 5 Gyres Institute, Clean Ocean Action, and Story of Stuff) are exploring.

1. Advocate for Wastewater Treatment Reform

Promote Potable Reuse Infrastructure

Potable reuse facilities could be a great solution to the plastic microfiber problem, while simultaneously helping to solve water availability issues. These facilities would be built next door to traditional wastewater treatment facilities, yet would take additional filtration steps to get the water to drinking level quality. These additional filtration methods include pasteurization; ultrafiltration; reverse osmosis; and UV light disinfection with advanced oxidation (currently occurring at a Pilot Project and Demonstration Facility by VenturaWaterPure). Ultrafiltration should catch all plastic microfibers as the filters are 0.1-0.02 microns in size, blocking even the smallest referenced microfiber at 3 microns. Finally, reverse osmosis eliminates the threat of microfibers as the filter blocks all particles larger than a water molecule from passing through, and is even able to block pharmaceuticals. More research is needed to see where microfiber filtration and capture could best be placed in this process, yet these additional steps pose a potentially great solution to a variety of environmental problems, including water shortages, wastewater discharge concerns, and more. The Surfrider Foundation is very interested in this potential solution to microfiber pollution and will be investigating the potential solution at a deeper level to explore opportunities for policy development and advocacy.

Plastic microfiber magnified. Photo credit: Rachel Ricotta / AP featured in an NBC article

Urge Conventional Wastewater Treatment Facilities to Upgrade

A study found that wastewater treatment facilities generally remove 95 to 99 percent of microfibers, yet even the small percentage that sneaks through can mean the release of 65 million plastic microfibers daily. The Great Lakes Water Authority’s conventional wastewater treatment plant participated in this assessment to see what options for filtration upgrades were available to catch plastic microfibers at their wastewater treatment facility. When looking closely at their system, they found that 55 percent of plastic microfibers were removed during first step of grit removal. If they were to add filters to this step to effectively capture the majority of microfibers, they estimate a cost of $250 million. Another option is to treat effluent before disinfection, with a process called tertiary filtration via sand filters. However sand filters have been found to be not very effective at removing microfibers. The study found that the most effective mechanism would be to use a membrane filtration system (like reverse osmosis). During a recent webinar, a representative from the Great Lakes Water Authority estimated that the complete implementation of a membrane filtration system could cost $900 million or more. It is unlikely that Surfrider Foundation would advocate for these types of upgrades without also encouraging the ability to create potable reuse water infrastructure.

In each of these filtration options, plastic microfibers would also remain in biosolids, which would need to be carefully managed at a landfill to prevent them from spreading at a different location. Additionally, biosolids from wastewater treatment facilities are frequently applied to agricultural lands as part of a fertilizer mix, which could directly spread plastic microfibers to these landscapes and subsequently back into natural water bodies. Therefore, presence of microfibers in the biosolids must be acknowledged and properly managed.

2. Support Regulation for Washing Machine Retrofits

The U.S. EPA Trash Free Water Program is currently conducting interviews to promote a collaborative dialogue “between manufacturers, water filtration experts, science community, and textile manufacturers” about plastic microfibers. There is potential for washing machine manufacturers to be required to implement new design improvements like filtration standards able to capture plastic microfibers. The focus on washing machine production is mainly due to the fact that there are only about 30 major washing machine manufacturers in the world, compared to thousands of textile manufacturers.

3. Alter Everyday Actions and the Way We Wash

One can reduce the amount of microfibers released from personal use by (1) reducing the amount of times synthetic clothes are washed (2) using front loading instead of top loading washing machines since the UCSB research revealed that top-loading washing machines cause microfiber shedding at a rate almost six times as high as front-loading (3) investing in high water efficiency washing machines that result in less shedding during the washing process and (4) consider using a microfiber filter (see below) when washing synthetic clothes.

4. Shift Consumer Choices and Purchase Natural Materials

Instead of synthetic material, clothing manufacturers could switch back to natural fibers that are able to truly breakdown in the natural environment. However, some natural fibers, like cotton, require high water usage, land use change for cropland conversion, and pending if the cotton is organic, the addition of harmful pesticides and fertilizers. To note, the alternative natural fiber of hemp requires roughly half the amount of water as cotton, its fast growing nature results in no to minimal need for pesticides, and requires less land to produce the same amount of fiber as cotton. This means that hemp has less of an impact than organic and traditional cotton when we consider water use and land conversion.

Besides the specific differences between cotton and hemp, both of these materials face hurdles in replacing synthetic textile products. The current industry depends on synthetics due to their resistance to degradation. The trick will be to create materials that degrade under conditions like temperature, acidity, and moisture found in soils or waterways, while resisting degradation to conditions that consumers encounter on a daily basis. However, consumers do have the final say in the decisions of manufacturers. If there is more demand for biodegradable material usage in clothing, companies are sure to change course to respond to that demand

For those that still require synthetic clothing in the meantime, try to purchase higher quality products as these are likely to shed less fibers during each wash, and avoid the purchasing and washing of acrylic clothing specifically, which was recently found to shed the most fibers per wash.

5. Follow Research that Finds Synthetic Alternatives and Treatments

Multiple studies at the polymer level are looking to find alternative synthetic materials, designs, and even coatings that can be applied to traditional synthetic clothing in order to stop breakage, and therefore prevent the shedding of plastic fibers into microplastics. Other studies have focused on the biodegradation of plastic microfibers via specialized bacteria. To promote additional research, The IUCN, Parley and Plastic Soup Foundation have joined forces to launch a fundraising effort to eventually fund and support research on potential solutions to the microfiber problem – including options for washing machine filters, synthetic yarns less prone to shedding, and bio-benign coatings to reduce shedding of already manufactured synthetic clothing, among others. Starting this month, a call for proposed projects will be released, and research projects targeting studies on these types of solutions could apply to win up to 1 million euro to accomplish their studies.

6. Purchase Household Filters for Washing Machines

A handful of companies and entrepreneurs 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. Rozalia Project’s “Cora Ball” is a filter that captures about 35 percent of microfibers in the washing machine. Fibers, human hair, and even pet hair get caught up in coral shaped stalks located in the center of the ball, which can then be dumped into the trashcan. The GUPPYFRIEND reusable-washing bag is also in development, and is a microfiber filter bag in which synthetic clothing is placed before going in the washing machine. The bag has a stated catch rate of 99 percent of microfibers, preventing a significant amount of microfibers from entering the water supply. There is also a more permanent option of installing the recently created Wexco’s Filtrol 160 filter into your washing machine, however the catch rate efficiency isn’t clearly provided.

As you can see, there are a wide array of potential solutions that are currently being developed and investigated. Surfrider Foundation does not endorse all of these solutions, necessarily, but wants to relay the state of the issue in this blog. Please stay connected and involved for future information on this emerging marine plastic pollution issue.