Yoga pants, fleece jackets and the microplastics dilemma

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Nodules of polystyrene under the microscope and in polarized light.

In December 2015, President Obama signed the Microbeads Free Waters Act, banning the use of plastic microbeads used as exfoliants in personal care products. As a previous director of the organization that first helped uncover this issue, I continue to be astonished by the massive amounts of plastic pollution that originate from a seemingly innocent act: washing our collective faces.

Winning on microbeads took a huge, national coalition of NGOs with a united strategic plan. The next iteration of that work has a new target: microfibers that come from washing synthetic clothing in washing machines.  

Oceanic gyres tend to eviscerate big plastics into smaller bits, and washing machines do the same — and even more efficiently. When you wash clothing made from synthetic materials such as polyester, tiny particles of plastic called microfibers are washed down the drain with the washing machine effluent. Microfiber pollution is one of the biggest sources of primary microplastic pollution. In a recent International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) report, washing clothing was found to be responsible for 33 percent of primary microplastic releases into the environment. Compare that to the effect of microbeads, which were banned for their paltry 2 percent contribution to watershed microplastic pollution.

For clothing brands, microfiber pollution represents an existential threat to their bottom line, and for outdoor companies, their pro-environment reputations.

Why? Because fossil-fuel-derived, plastic textiles are becoming the go-to fabric of choice for sports and active lifestyle brands due to their performance attributes. Already, 60 percent of all clothing on earth is made of polyester, with even higher occurrences in activewear brands. But whether it’s yoga pants, fleece jackets or underwear, plastic clothes are the new normal — and are shedding massive amounts of persistent plastic pollutants into our shared waters and soil. Unfortunately, with increasing demand for synthetic fabrics, the problem is at risk of getting even worse.  

To give an idea of scale, it’s estimated more than 1.4 million trillion fibers are awash in the ocean, a number derived by George Leonard, chief scientist for the Ocean Conservancy, based on an extrapolation from existing data. Now, consider that government data shows more than 103 million washing machines are in the United States doing an average of eight to 10 loads of laundry per week. According to the scientific literature, each load can release between 1,900 fibers per load, to as many as 250,000 per fleece jacket, per wash.

Microfibers are a huge source of pollution, but are they dangerous?

It’s seriously doubtful we’re going to see a scientific study that demonstrates that animals eating plastic is a good thing. As such, many scientists agree there is cause for alarm and that a solution must be found.

What we do know is that plankton, mussels and clams eat fibers and can cause gut impaction and other serious digestive tract problems. We know one in four fish procured from a fish market in California has evidence of microfiber ingestion. We also know microfibers will attract and concentrate (up to a million times greater toxicity) other chemical pollutants present in water, and that after ingestion these toxins can leach from the plastic into an organism’s tissues. Some clothing is also treated with dangerous chemicals that will desorb into water over time as well.  

So, although we don’t know the ultimate human health connection implications yet from eating sea life, we know that larger organisms eat smaller ones, and that pollutants thus magnify up the food chain.

So what are clothing brands doing about it?

Forward-thinking brands have acknowledged microfiber pollution is real, and apparel company Patagonia has commissioned a study to look at their products’ contributions to the problem. But few brands have made any significant progress on mitigating their products’ impact on the environment. 

In the six years since the first seminal study demonstrating microfiber pollution was published, no clothing company has abandoned synthetic fibers for use in their products. Instead, we’ve seen an increased use of synthetic textiles, especially polyester. Brands love polyester and other synthetics for their performance attributes: they repel water, wick sweat, and the fabric stretches without getting stretched out. Although cheap to produce, polyester is twice as carbon-intensive than the next most carbon-intensive material, cotton.

Some brands, recognizing a way to solve the carbon problem, thought making clothing out of recycled plastic water and soda bottles would be a good idea. This became an overall trend for "green activewear" brands to tell a sustainability story. Although these efforts are well-intentioned, the effect on water and soil remains the same with regard to microfiber pollution.

As is often the case with so many environmental problems, the first solutions are ones that encourage individual actions and technical quick fixes over more complicated, systemic interventions. Although we at The Story of Stuff Project absolutely appreciate innovation and individuals’ desire to "do good" in the world, we’ve been in the environmental advocacy sphere long enough to be skeptical of "sexy" tech fixes that attempt to frame an issue as being solved "if we all just do our part."

Does anyone really think retrofitting 103 million washing machines in the United States alone is practical? Here are my thoughts on some solutions proposed so far:  

  • Wash your synthetic clothes less. We have to clean clothes eventually, which seems to indicate that clothing brands are still OK with some amount of fibers going into the environment. This strategy doesn’t address the systemic problem and places the burden on the consumer.
  • Put a filter in a washing machine. Again, this is the clothing industry looking for another industry to solve its problem. Technically, it’s difficult to put a filter inside a washing machine because the fibers it catches are so fine they end up stopping the machine from draining properly. This observation comes directly from the mouths of product developers at General Electric, with whom I’ve spoken at length.
  • Put a filter outside of the washing machine. This could work, but how on earth would you ever enforce it? This task seems just as hard as campaigning against all textile manufacturers, and again, it puts the burden on the public, not the producer.
  • Use a filter bag inside the machine. Recently, there has been a lot in the press around the Guppy Friend, a bag designed to stop microfiber solution by washing synthetic fabrics within the bag. This is a pretty cool stop-gap measure that allows citizens to "do something." I’d like this better if industry was subsidizing the cost of the bag and giving it away at point of purchase, rather than "hoping" people will buy them.
  • Put a fiber collector or innovative detergent in the machine. This may have some promise, but again, how could anyone enforce this? Maybe a detergent could be invented that works as a coagulating agent that grabs all the fibers and leaves a ball of fibers at the end of a cycle. I’m spitballing, but if such a thing could be invented, you’d have to legislate that all detergent sold does this — and we’d need clothing companies to pay for the R&D that creates the product and support the legislative battle to pass the policy. Judging by how hard plastic-microbeads-loving companies fought common sense legislation, this would be very difficult to achieve.
  • Stop using synthetic fabrics. There are fabrics from natural sources that could be used more widely — bamboo, for example, can be spun into fabric in a closed loop system (where chemicals used to break down the cellulosic fiber into a usable form are captured, re-used and never enter the environment). Bamboo has a lot of pluses, and also has many of the performance attributes that polyester does.
  • Update all developed country sewage treatment to tertiary filtration with the final effluent treated by cloth filters before it’s discharged. Yes, this ultimately could stop fibers from getting into watersheds but it would require billions of dollars of infrastructure spending, and it raises other issues, such as what to do about biosolids. The only way to make this work equitably would be to pass laws that require clothing manufacturers to pay a portion of their revenue, based on size, to a fund the updates the treatment process and offset the loss of revenue derived from selling fertilizers. There are several jurisdictional barriers to work through, but what concerns me most is that eventually, a litigation-oriented nonprofit likely will sue wastewater agencies for discharging plastic fibers in violation of the Clean Water Act or some other nuanced legal theory.
  • Coat textiles with a treatment that prevents shedding. This is an interesting idea some clothing brands are assessing. Many questions remain, namely: How long would a coating last? Is the coating environmentally benign? However difficult, this is the solution I like the most so far, because it puts the burden of solving the pollution problem on the front end and on the industry responsible for creating the problem in the first place.

It’s clear that many concerned companies examining the microplastics problem associated with clothes are still in the "head scratching" phase. No clothing brand intended for their synthetic products to be discharged into the environment. Now that they know, they must step up and tackle the problem. As advocates and concerned citizens, we must work hard to listen to the brands but also to guide their proposed solutions and push for systemic fixes.

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