In 2011, an ecologist released an alarming study showing that tiny clothing fibers could be the biggest source of plastic in our oceans. The bigger problem? No one wanted to hear it
Ecologist Mark Browne knew he’d found something big when, after months of tediously examining sediment along shorelines around the world, he noticed something no one had predicted: fibers. Everywhere. They were tiny and synthetic and he was finding them in the greatest concentration near sewage outflows. In other words, they were coming from us.
In fact, 85% of the human-made material found on the shoreline were microfibers, and matched the types of material, such as nylon and acrylic, used in clothing.
It is not news that microplastic – which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines as plastic fragments 5mm or smaller – is ubiquitous in all five major ocean gyres. And numerous studies have shown that small organisms readily ingest microplastics, introducing toxic pollutants to the food chain.
But Browne’s 2011 paper announcing his findings marked a milestone, according to Abigail Barrows, an independent marine research scientist based in Stonington, Maine, who has helped to check for plastic in more than 150 one-liter water samples collected around the world. “He’s fantastic – very well respected” among marine science researchers, says Barrows. “He is a pioneer in microplastics research.”
By sampling wastewater from domestic washing machines, Browne estimated that around 1,900 individual fibers can be rinsed off a single synthetic garment – ending up in our oceans.
Alarmed by his findings, Browne reached out to prominent clothing brands for help. He sought partnerships to try to determine the flow of synthetic fibers from clothing to the washing machine to the ocean. He also hoped his research might help develop better textile design to prevent the migration of toxic fibers into water systems.
The reaction wasn’t what he expected.
He contacted leaders in the outdoor apparel industry – big purveyors of synthetic fabrics – including Patagonia, Nike and Polartec. But none of these companies agreed to lend support.
“Perhaps it’s my pitch,” Browne joked. “We want to look for new, more durable materials that do not emit so much microplastic.”
In 2013, Brown presented his vision for a program called Benign by Design, backed by a team of engineers and scientists from academic institutions around the world as well as from the Environmental Protection Agency. The group’s goal is to help the industry tackle the problem of synthetic microfiber migration into waterways and marine ecosystems. He proposed creating a range of working groups where scientists and industry representatives would work together to develop synthetic materials that do not shed synthetic fibers – or do so minimally but are still cost-effective, high-performing and, if possible, rely on recycled materials.
Only one firm, women’s clothing brand Eileen Fisher, offered to support him. The company’s $10,000 grant has supported a section of Browne’s research over the past year.
“Any lifecycle issue, especially when it’s about a huge consumer product like clothing, is important,” says Shona Quinn, sustainability leader with Eileen Fisher. “[Browne] is raising an issue no one else has been studying.”
While Browne sees the grant as a validation of his efforts, 90% of the products Eileen Fisher sells are made of natural fibers. He’s still hoping to find a clothing company that will collaborate on research and development of new synthetic fabrics that will not shed microfibers.
While pitching his idea at the Launch innovation conference, Browne spoke to Jim Zieba, vice president of Polartec’s advanced concepts and business development group. In a follow-up email, Browne asked if Zeiba could provide him with polymers from Polartec textiles so that Browne could grow the database of materials he maintains to help discern the unidentified fibers in his samples. He did not hear back from Zeiba.
Allon Cohne, global marketing director at Polartec, says he’s familiar with Browne and his research, but that Polartec has already done an internal study to analyze the effluent at its Lawrence, Massachusetts, manufacturing plant. Aside from characterizing the amount of microfibers contained in the effluent as “minimal”, Cohne said he could not publicly share the study or any details – such as what minimal means.
Browne says he’s glad to hear that Polartec conducted a study, but maintains that any truly scientific study would be open to peer review. (As it happens, the words “Committed to Science” are currently presented on Polartec’s website, above a video describing Polatec’s approach to fabric innovation.)
Patagonia, a company known for its strong environmental ethic and sustainable manufacturing processes, has also declined to work with Browne. The company’s strategic environmental responsibility manager, Todd Copeland, says the company considers Browne’s findings too preliminary to commit resources directly to a project like Benign by Design, until it sees more solid evidence that specific types of products or materials, such as fleece jackets or polyester base layers, are contributing to a major environmental threat. “I don’t know how much effort we want to spend looking for the solution before we know where the problem is,” Copeland says.
Browne says that, without industry support, he doesn’t know how he can move ahead with his efforts to address microfiber migration from textiles at their source.
“I think [clothing companies] have all put a lot of marketing money into environmental programs, but I’ve not seen evidence that they’ve put much money into research,” says Browne.
In fact, Patagonia maintains a policy to not directly support research, its spokesman Adam Fetcher told me. Instead, it supports non-profit groups doing environmental advocacy work. Over the past five years, Patagonia has awarded close to $70,000 in grants to groups focused on the microplastics pollution issue. These include Algalita Marine Research Foundation (founded by captain Charles Moore, who first raised the issue of microplastics in oceans), 5 Gyres, and Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC), with whom Abigail Barrows works to collect surface water samples from around the world for her research into microfibers.
Perhaps Browne would have more luck if he were an environmental advocate rather than a scientist.
Still, Gregg Treinish, ASC executive director, says he would need to raise a great deal more money to fund the level of research he feels microfibers deserve. “Determining what type of plastic is in the water is hard and expensive – up to $1000 per sample.”
Browne’s difficulty in finding companies to cooperate might be compounded by the fact that the industry that is already under scrutiny for different environmental issues. According to the World Bank, textile manufacturing generates up to 20% of industrial wastewater in China, and a number of environmental groups, chiefly Greenpeace, have launched campaigns to pressure clothing makers to rid their supply chains of toxic chemicals, such as perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) used in textile processing. PFCs are linked to environmental toxicity and human health problems, and Kevin Brigden, a chemist and Greenpeace honorary research fellow, says some manufacturers are finally beginning to phase them out.
But Brigden fears microfibers released from synthetic fibers could just as chemically hazardous. “Some chemicals are very water soluble, so they wash out [into wastewater during textile manufacturing],” Brigden says. “Others are less soluble so they take time to wash off. If fabrics break down then [microfibers] are another pathway for those [chemicals into the environment].”
Those fighting the use of microbeads in beauty products are finding more traction, Barrows says, because phasing them out is straightforward. Getting rid of synthetic fibers, on the other hand, would be extremely difficult. Not only are synthetic fabrics durable and versatile, but they can have smaller water and energy footprint than natural fabrics. “Synthetic fabrics have many great applications,” Barrows concedes, and determining how to measure their environmental impacts is an overwhelming challenge.
Other sources, other solutions
Polartec’s Cohne argues that too much emphasis is being placed on the clothing industry and that carpet and upholstery manufactures ought to be considered as equally important sources of synthetic microfiber runoff in the industrial sector. Professional carpet cleaners might be another vector.
Cohne also believes more onus should be put on washing machine manufacturers to find ways to capture the clothing fibers so that they do not ultimately enter wastewater treatment systems.
Browne has reached out to appliance manufacturers Siemens, Dyson (which sells washing machines in Europe), and LG, hoping to engage their design or research teams in a discussion about how they might be able to develop microfiber filters to prevent them from entering the water.
None has responded.
However, a Canadian tinkerer turned entrepreneur named Blair Jollimore is working on a solution. After his septic tank backed up and flooded his home, he discovered the main culprit was lint from his washing machine. So the former airplane engine mechanic, based in Nova Scotia, created a filter for his home laundry machine. “I’m a mechanical engineer, so I modified a water filter and added stainless steel screen,” says Jollimore. “I’ve been using it for 14 years.”
In 2003, some of his neighbors who were also having septic tank problems asked if he could make filters for their machines, too, and a home business was born. Jollimore has sold more than 1,000 of his filters to homeowners from England to Hawaii and now, with Browne’s encouragement, is preparing to pitch his filter to appliance makers as a way to rid wastewater of microfibers.
While he has found a screen that would capture strands down to 1 micron – necessary to stop all microfibers – he is still experimenting with what forcing water through such a fine filter could do to laundry machine function. “Every bit of dirt in your laundry would be captured, so it would back up the process,” he says.
As for capturing the fibers at their next stop, wastewater treatment plants, Browne is not optimistic. He says he has conferred with many engineers who work in sewage treatment and none of them thinks removing fibers – or microbeads, which enter wastewater through residential plumbing – is viable. Besides, he says, even if those microplastics were removed from the liquid waste, they would end up in sludge, which in some places ends up being turned into fertilizers. In those cases, the plastics would still enter the ecosystem, and conceivably the food chain.
Browne concedes that more research is required to better understand the sources and impacts of synthetic microfibers in the environment, and he wishes he could get the clothing companies on his side. “The [textile] people I’ve talked to have not been trained environmental scientists, they’re more often marketing people.”
“Industry is saying, ‘you just have to do more work on it’. But that will require someone to support it,” he says. “It seems to be a way of avoiding dealing with the problem.”