Beginning July 1, 2017, the US will start phasing out soaps and cosmetics that include microbeads, the tiny pieces of plastic often used in soaps to help exfoliate the skin.
The ban comes after research showed the beads are often too small to get filtered by wastewater treatment plants. That means they can can end up in oceans and rivers, where marine animals wind up ingesting them, in turn causing the beads to be incorporated into our food chain. But microbeads are just one form of microplastics, a broader category that also includes tiny fibres that come off synthetic fabrics like polyester or nylon.
Because these microfibers are less than a fifth of an inch long, many of them also get through the filters in treatment plants, yet so far there haven’t been any governmental efforts to regulate them. A recent study commissioned by outdoor clothing company Patagonia suggests we could be sending a shocking amount of these fibres — more than 64,000 pounds — into oceans and streams each day.
“Anything from plankton all the way up to whales have been found to have microfibers in their systems,” says Bess Ruff, a project researcher at U.C. Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, which published a study of microfiber pollution in Environmental Science & Technology in September.
The study was conducted by a research team of five graduate students overseen by Patricia Holden, a professor of environmental microbiology. To calculate the amount of fibres that gets released into our water system, the team tested four different types of synthetic Patagonia jackets and one budget fleece (a lower-end version that competes with Patagonia). Each was put in two kinds of washing machines — top-load and front-load — and then the runoff water from the loads was filtered through a uniquely designed column made to collect the fibres.
The team weighed the fibres, calcu
lated how much gets shed in an average wash, and extrapolated that data for a city of 100,000 people. The group determined that wastewater treatment plants can filter out 65-92% of the microfibers in water, which means means every 100,000 people send between 19 and 242 pounds of microfibers into the water each day. (That large range also accounts for the quality of clothing, the type of washing machine, and the age of the items.)
That means the entire US population could be releasing more than 750,000 pounds of tiny fibres into the water daily. And that doesn’t include the microfibers that get filtered and incorporated into solid waste that water treatment plants collect, which is sometimes repurposed as fertiliser for farms.
Even the study’s low estimate — 64,000 pounds of microfibers each day — is surprisingly high.
According to Ruff and the Bren research team, microfiber pollution is troubling on two levels. First, it means that animals considered to be filter feeders, which eat by straining food particles out of water, are directly intaking the fibres. That category includes oysters and mussels, so the fibres could actually be in the tissue that humans eat.
Second, synthetic fibres (unlike natural ones like wool or cotton) are prone to absorbing chemicals. That means microfibers could potentially pick up chemicals while they travel through wastewater treatment plants, or that they could make it into oceans or streams carrying the chemicals originally added to the clothing they came from.
“You have odor-resistant chemicals applied, water-resistant chemicals applied, and those are inside the fibres,” Ruff says. “When they get consumed, these chemicals can be transferred to tissue of organisms that eat them.”
In other words, even if the fibres go into the parts of a fish that humans don’t typically eat — like the stomach or intestines — those chemicals could still get into the tissue we consume.
The amount that humans would ingest is tiny. But Ruff says large quantities of the most commonly found chemicals on microfibers have been shown to cause issues with the endocrine system, neurological development, and cancer. Researchers are also beginning to look into the chemicals’ impacts on smaller animals.
“There have been some studies on filter feeders where they have been shown to produce fewer eggs, smaller eggs and slower sperm, so you’re having a lower output of larvae,” she says. “It’s impacting the population. We don’t know how drastically or if it’s a longterm impact, but there have been noticeable changes in the physiology of these organisms from consuming fibres.”
That’s especially troubling to Patagonia, since many of its jackets and fleeces are made of synthetic materials and lots of its customers care deeply about the environment.
Since the results of the study were released, Elissa Loughman, manager of product responsibility at Patagonia, has been trying to figure out the best action for the company to take. An important first step, she says is “identifying fabrics and fibres that either shed a lot or shed less, understanding that, and then make decisions internally to minimise the use of those fabrics and fibres that shed more.”
Patagonia is also now working with a team at North Carolina State University to devise a test that clothing companies could use in their labs to learn about microfiber shedding when trying out a new material.
“The idea is that there could be another test that everyone could do in their standardised test tabs that would identify the shedding potential prior to actually choosing to put a fibre or a fabric to use in a product,” she explains.
Loughman adds that the problem has to be addressed at many levels — washing machine manufacturers can do their parts, too, and there are several ways eco-conscious consumers can decrease their microfiber pollution. Septic tank filters can be effective at catching microfibers when used in home washing machines, and a nonprofit called the Rozalia Project, which is devoted to keeping the oceans clean, is developing a ball that can catch microfibers in the wash.
Those who have a choice of washing machines should also opt for front-load ones instead of top-load ones, since the Bren study found that top-load machines create 5.3 times more fibre shedding. Ruff says the researchers still aren’t sure why this is the case, but think it has to do with the machines’ central agitator, which creates friction by grinding against the clothes. Front-load machines, on the other hand, just move the clothes against themselves.
But the easiest thing people can do, Ruff says, is just wash clothing less. Loughman says that’s a message Patagonia can get behind.
“Patagonia is an outdoorsy company and we sort of pride ourselves on getting dirty and staying dirty sometimes,” she says. “So having dirty clothes is kind of funny, and actually part of a solution to this.”
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