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Microplastic pollution – the biggest environmental problem today

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Microplastic pollution is devastating our oceans. New research indicates that the biggest culprit may be the clothes we wear.

The first time professor Sherri Mason cut open a Great Lakes fish, she was alarmed at what she found. Synthetic fibers were everywhere. Under a microscope, they seemed to be “weaving themselves into the gastrointestinal tract”. Though she had been studying aquatic pollution around the Great Lakes for several years, Mason, who works for the State University of New York Fredonia, had never seen anything like it.

New studies indicate that the fibers in our clothes could be poisoning our waterways and food chain on a massive scale. Microfibers – tiny threads shed from fabric – have been found in abundance on shorelines where waste water is released.

Now researchers are trying to pinpoint where these plastic fibers are coming from.

Research at the University of California at Santa Barbara found that, on average, synthetic fleece jackets release 1.7 grams of microfibers each wash. It also found that older jackets shed almost twice as many fibers as new jackets. The study was funded by outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia, a certified B Corp that also offers grants for environmental work. “These microfibers then travel to your local wastewater treatment plant, where up to 40% of them enter rivers, lakes and oceans,” according to findings published on the researchers’ website.

Synthetic microfibers are particularly dangerous because they have the potential to poison the food chain. The fibers’ size also allows them to be readily consumed by fish and other wildlife. These plastic fibers have the potential to bioaccumulate, concentrating toxins in the bodies of larger animals, higher up the food chain. Microbeads, recently banned in the US, are a better-known variety of microplastic, but recent studies have found microfibers to be even more pervasive.

In a groundbreaking 2011 paper, Mark Browne, now a senior research associate at the University of New South Wales, Australia, found that microfibers made up 85% of human-made debris on shorelines around the world.

While Patagonia and other outdoor companies, like Polartec, use recycled plastic bottles as a way to conserve and reduce waste, this latest research indicates that the plastic might ultimately end up in the oceans anyway – and in a form that’s even more likely to cause problems. Breaking a plastic bottle into millions of fibrous bits of plastic might prove to be worse than doing nothing at all.

And the fibers are being found in fresh water as well. “This is not just a coastal or marine problem,” said Abigail Barrows, principal investigator of the Global Microplastics Initiative, part of the research group Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. Of the almost 2,000 aquatic samples Barrows has processed, about 90% of the debris was microfibers – both in freshwater and the ocean.

Microfibers are also the second most common type of debris in Lake Michigan, according to Sherri Mason’s research. Finishing up research into tributaries of the Great Lakes, she’s finding that microfibers are the most common type of debris in those smaller bodies of water. “The majority [71%] of what we’re finding in the tributaries are actually fibers,” Mason said by email. “They exceed fragments and pellets.”

Companies that have built their businesses on the environment have been some of the first to pay attention to the growing microfiber issue. Patagonia proposed the Bren School study in 2015, after polyester, the primary component of outdoor fabrics like fleece, showed up as a major ocean pollutant.

Patagonia is part of a working group, as is Columbia Sportswear and 18 others, studying the issue through the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), a trade group consisting of about 1,300 companies

Mark Browne, the researcher responsible for first bringing microfibers to public attention, said that the grace period is over.

“We know that these are the most abundant forms of debris – that they are in the environment,” Brown said. He added that government and industry must be asked to explain “what they are going to be doing about it”.

The Amsterdam-based Plastic Soup Foundation, an ocean conservation project co-funded by the European Union, said better quality clothing or fabrics coated with an anti-shed treatment could help.

The foundation’s director, Maria Westerbos, said a nanoball that could be thrown into a washing machine to attract and capture plastic fibers also seems promising.

Another solution may lie with waterless washing machines, one of which is being developed by Colorado-based Tersus Solutions. Tersus, with funding from Patagonia, has developed a completely waterless washing machine in which textiles are washed in pressurized carbon dioxide.

Others suggest a filter on home washing machines. More than 4,500 fibers can be released per gram of clothing per wash, according to preliminary data from the Plastic Soup Foundation.

But the washing machine industry is not yet ready to act. Jill Notini, vice president of communications and marketing for the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, said the washing machine could very well be a source of microfiber debris, but that the proposed solutions are impractical.

 

 

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