Called 'the biggest environmental problem you've never heard of,' the shedding of plastic microfibers is a topic nobody wants to discuss.
Laundry is a surprising source of plastic pollution. Every time you wash synthetic clothes, such as fleeces, athletic wear, and leggings, minuscule plastic fibers are released into the wash water. These fibers are known as microplastics, since they fall into the category of tiny plastic pellets, fragments, and films that measure less than 1 millimetre across.
This also means that they’re nearly impossible to filter out at wastewater plants and most end up in the ocean, to the detriment of marine life—and ultimately, inside humans, too, as a third of our food is thought to be contaminated by these plastic microfibers.Fibers are unique among microplastics because of their shape. Chelsea Rochman, lead scientist for a University of California Davis study on how ingested plastic transfers chemicals to fish, explains:
“These fibers are a bit longer, and they’re loopy, and they can get caught in the digestive tract or in the stomach. They can cause an animal to starve or stop eating, or can actually loop around the organ… So you could say a whale with a big rope isn’t that different from plankton with a small fiber.”
When the Regional Monitoring Program for Water Quality in San Francisco tested the effluent of eight Bay Area wastewater treatment plants last year, they “found that 80 percent of the microplastics and other microscopic particles were fibers.”
Clearly fibers are a much bigger problem than microbeads, and yet they receive a fraction of the attention.
The Guardian has called it “the biggest environmental problem you’ve never heard of,” and tells the story of ecologist Mark Browne, whose groundbreaking research in this field has gone largely ignored by the major clothing retailers whose shelves are stocked with the synthetic fabrics that are fuelling this problem. In 2011, when Browne’s study first came out, nobody wanted to listen—not even Patagonia, which prides itself on environmental stewardship.
Now, however, Patagonia is being forced to pay attention. The company commissioned its own research project to assess the shedding of fleece garments in the wash. Researchers found that jackets washed in top-loading machines lose five times more fibers than front loaders; that older jackets shed more than newer ones (a conundrum for a company that asks customers to wear their clothing as long as possible); and that wastewater facilities filter out only 65 to 92 percent of micro fibers. Furthermore Patagonia states that there was no statistical difference between the amount of shedding from recycled and virgin polyesters.
Patagonia, which stated in an explanatory blog post that “further research is needed to understand the extent to which synthetic microfibers in the ocean harm the ecosystem,” does not have a plan of action, something which commenters have criticized. One wrote:
“When Yvon Chouinard [Patagonia’s founder] was confronted with the dilemma of clean climbing, he didn't proclaim that he would look into the matter; he stopped making pitons altogether. The same approach should be taken with the manufacturing of synthetic fleece. When the only available information is anecdotal the response should be to err on the side of caution, not business as usual until someone proves otherwise.”
What is a conscientious shopper to do?
Not buying fleece and other synthetic fabrics is the most obvious step to take, although eliminating synthetic clothing from society’s wardrobe would be nearly impossible now, when you consider that most people live in their ‘leisure wear.’ Opt for natural fibers whenever possible.
Not buying more than you absolutely need and wearing it to the end of its life cycle, as well as investing in a front-loading washing machine and hang-drying clothes, are other helpful steps to take. Wash as little as possible; spot-wash as much as you can.
It will be interesting to see what Patagonia comes up with, if anything. Fleece has been a mainstay of its clothing for so many years, but the side effects are now impossible to ignore.