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What is the Fashion Industry Doing About Microplastic Pollution?

Joaquim Goes did not set out to be an expert on microplastics: those minuscule fragments of plastic, smaller than one-fifth of an inch, that have emerged as the oceans’ biggest invisible scourge.

As a marine biologist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in Palisades, N.Y., his main concern was phytoplankton physiology and how it might predict the responses of marine ecosystems to global climate change.

It was on a NASA-sponsored ocean-mapping expedition along the east coast of Korea in 2016 that he first encountered “strange particles” clinging to the phytoplankton in his water samples, Goes told the audience at the Change Fashion conference in New York City in November.

A researcher from the Navy, who was drying bits of sediment on filters, bungled the oven settings by hitting Celsius instead of Fahrenheit. Before long, an acrid smell began to waft through the ship. At first, nobody on board couldn’t fathom the cause. “We thought that there was an electric failure on the ship,” Goes recalled. Then, the source of the smell revealed itself: the Navy scientist’s filters were “loaded” with plastics, and they were burning up. 

Soon, Goes was seeing microplastics everywhere he looked. The Hudson and East Rivers, he discovered, brimmed with specks of plastic that soaked up water-borne toxins, such as pharmaceuticals, like sponges. Catches dredged in Newtown Creek, a tributary of the East River off Wall Street, were laden with atenolol, a hypertension medication. “Those guys are probably overmedicating themselves,” he said.

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But microplastics don’t simply bob around in the water. To zooplankton, bivalves, whales and seals, those bite-sized morsels—and the hazardous substances they’ve bonded with—appear visually indistinguishable from food. Scientists have found microplastics in the bellies of at least 114 aquatic species, many of which we, in turn, consume. Strikingly, billions of particles can accumulate in shellfish in a matter of hours, as the University of Plymouth has discovered.

The results of the study show for the first time that nanoparticles can be rapidly taken up by a marine organism, and that in just a few hours they become distributed across most of the major organs, Maya Al Sid Cheikh, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Plymouth said in a statement in December.

Goes himself once directed a group of high schoolers to examine commonly available seafood purchased from grocery stores. “About 90 percent of the samples they brought was contaminated with plastics,” he said. “You can imagine the scale of the problem we’re confronted with.”

More than stars in our galaxy

Certainly, for microplastics, no place is sacred. They’ve reared their heads in the loneliest reaches of the Antarctic, in sea salt and in bottom-dwelling starfish. They’ve infiltrated flying insects, most of the world’s tap-water supplies and the guts of three out of four mesopelagic fish caught in the Northwest Atlantic. The stomachs of every species of turtle across the Atlantic, Pacific and Mediterranean harbors microplastics, researchers at University of Exeter and Plymouth Marine Laboratory declared last month. Even human stool has not been spared.

As many as 51 trillion microplastic particles—500 times more than stars in our galaxy—litter the seas, according to the United Nations (UN) Environmental Programme.

Microplastics can stem from a variety of sources, though mismanaged plastic waste, tossed and tumbled into smaller pieces by waves, sediment abrasion and degradation from the sun, remains the No. 1 source of marine pollution globally, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They can also be manufactured to be in that size range, such as in the case of microbeads, which are used in certain exfoliating personal-care products and are the target of widespread sanctions across the globe.

But washing synthetic textiles in industrial laundries and households can also create microplastics through the shedding of fibers—as may as 700,000 for per cycle at standard temperatures of 30 and 40 degrees Celsius (86 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit), according to a 2016 investigation by Plymouth University.

Not all materials shed equally, however. Of the ones tested, acrylic was by far the worst offender, unleashing roughly 730,000 fibers per wash, compared with 137,951 from a polyester-cotton blend and 496,030 from pure polyester, researchers said. The addition of bio-detergent and conditioners, they noted, caused the fabrics to generate even more fibers.

It’s their size—or lack thereof—that proves to be the most problematic. Because they’re so tiny, these plastic slivers can slip past sewage filtration systems designed to capture larger pollutants. From there, they make their way into rivers, lakes and oceans.

All in all, the IUCN calculated, laundering synthetic textiles accounts for 34.8 percent—that is, more than a third—of jettisoned microplastics.

The problem is likely only to get worse. Already, oil-based synthetics make up more than 60 percent of the total global demand for fibers for apparel, according to a 2013 survey by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the International Cotton Advisory Committee. Tecnon Orbichem, a petrochemical statistics firm, expects the output of polyester to triple from 30.9 million metric tons in 2007—the year it outpaced cotton as the world’s dominant fiber—to 90.5 million metric tons in 2025.

And while the European Commission has proposed a ban on 90 percent of microplastics that are intentionally added to products such as paints, cosmetics and detergents, it has yet to follow through on its specific concerns about microfibers, which at least one study suggests may be even more detrimental to marine life than microbeads.

Taking responsibility

The outdoor industry, replete with heavy fleeces, technical soft shells and synthetic insulation, is naturally concerned. In September, America’s Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) and the European Outdoor Group, collectively representing more than 1,500 brands and retailers, published a joint statement recognizing their “potential contribution to microfiber pollution” and announcing the launch of a shared cross-industry Microfiber Action Roadmap in partnership with Ocean Conservancy.

“We believe it is our responsibility to support and facilitate a unified effort among our member companies—as well as among other key industries and sectors, including the fashion industry, the textile industry, chemical manufacturers, the home appliance industry and water-treatment facilities—to drive the collection of data that is necessary to better understand the sources and causes of microfiber release, and to implement appropriate solutions that are based on sound science,” the organizations said.

The OIA has also established a Microfibers Task Force, a subset of the group’s Sustainability Working Group that includes outdoor industry brands, retailers, suppliers, service providers, nonprofits and other key stakeholders. Key data gaps still abound around the sources, causes and fates of microfibers in the air and waterways, Jessie Curry, manager of sustainable business innovation at OIA, told Sourcing Journal. As such, apparel companies have been unable to make informed decisions around materials and products to reduce shed rates.

Because no harmonized standards to measure fabric-shedding rates currently exist, OIA members such as The North Face, Patagonia and REI are “actively participating” in the development of an accelerated laundering test method with the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists to evaluate textile-fiber release, Curry said. There are also plans to create “dry” test methods for shedding that may occur from fabric abrasion and mechanical drying.

Microfiber shedding, she stressed, is a “complex challenge” and one not limited to synthetics alone.

“While the current conversations and efforts are primarily focused on microfiber shedding from synthetic textiles as a subset of the broader plastic waste issue, it is important to note that all fabrics and fibers shed, whether natural or synthetic,” Curry said. “The industry is currently researching the shedding rates of various textile types via various projects; however, at this point, it is unclear which fibers have the highest release rate or overall impact.”

Indeed, complicating matters, new findings in December by the University of Barcelona, revealed a “dominance” of microfibers from natural cellulose (cotton and linen) and regenerated cellulose (viscose and lyocell) on southern European sea floors, some 3,500 meters (11,482 feet) in depth. Synthetic polymers, though less abundant, were found to accumulate in the marine hollows and canyons of the Cantabrian Sea, the Alboran Sea and the Black Sea as well. Polyester was the most common, followed by acrylic, polyamide, polyethylene and polypropylene.

“Some of these synthetic microfibers are made of plastic, which does not degrade shortly [and] can contain chemical additives, which can be easily incorporated to the trophic network,” said researcher Anna Sánchez Vidal, noting that the microplastics were also being digested by deep-sea microorganisms.

To be sure, the persistence of microfibers in marine soils—and the negative effects these can have on marine organisms in the long run—clearly indicate a need for effective management strategies to reduce textile emissions, she said.

“We need to advance in research and innovation in the textile industry, in the design of effective filters for washing machines, in the treatment of waste waters and the promotion of sustainable clothing,” Sánchez Vidal added.

Possible solutions

Some of those advances are beginning to manifest, if slowly. In November, PrimaLoft debuted the world’s first synthetic insulation and textiles, made from 100 percent recycled fibers, that will break down only in landfill or ocean conditions.

November saw Polartec bow a new fabric technology designed to reduce fiber shedding. Power Air, as the platform is called, encapsulates lofted fibers within a continuous, multilayer fabric construction that offers advanced thermal efficiency and is “proven” to shed five times less than other premium mid-layer-weight fabrics, the company said.

Further developments are coming down the pipe, too: In October, Burberry, Stella McCartney, H&M and Zara owner Inditex joined hands with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the UN to eradicate plastic waste “at the source” through the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment. Luxury conglomerate Kering says it will include a section on synthetic fibers in version 2.0 of its Kering Standards early next year. And Patagonia, which has commissioned studies of the problem, dropped hints in an email about an update in the coming months.

Similarly, The North Face, which is working with students at the North Carolina State College of Textiles to identify factors that affect fabric shedding, plans to “re-engineer some of [its] top-selling fabrics based on the results,” said James Rogers, its director of sustainability.

Likewise, Goes, the microplastics researcher, also suggests other ways fashion businesses can be proactive: a longer staple length or a stronger twist, say, to prevent fiber shedding. Like SPF for sunscreen and UV-protective clothing, perhaps the industry could implement  a “plastic factor” to “say how much of your clothing would shed as you wash it,” he offered.

Linda Greer, a Natural Resources Defense Council senior scientist who spoke on the same panel, says the solution lies not in chucking out plastics altogether but rather manufacturing synthetics more responsibly.

“[Synthetics] make up most of our clothing right now,, so if we stop making plastic we stop making a lot of clothes,” she said. “The alternative is to growing all that cotton, which, by the way, is difficult to do and is not without its impacts. So I would more prefer not that we stop using synthetics but that we start manufacturing synthetics better.”

Goes concurs—to a point.

“I use clothing; I love clothes,” he said. “But nowadays I’m really careful about what I buy.”