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The Microfiber Problem Will Only Get Bigger if Apparel Companies Don’t Act

It’s no secret microplastic pollution has proven a major problem for the environment, but the verdict may still be out on the impact of natural versus synthetic fibers.

Speaking at the Cotton Sustainability Summit in San Diego last week, Anna Cummings, co-founder and global strategy director at 5 Gyres, an organization devoted to reducing plastics pollution, said the problem of plastic microfibers can be traced back to the throw away culture that began in the 1950s.

“Plastics enjoyed unfettered growth through the ’50s and ’60s up until today,” Cummings said. “Now we know there is no throw away.”

As much as 311 million tons of plastics were produced in 2014, Cummings said, and “those numbers are expected to double or triple in the next 50 to 60 years. So where is it all going?”

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, only 14 percent of annual plastic production is recovered and just 2 percent is recycled in a closed-loop fashion. Another 72 percent is unrecovered and either goes directly to landfills or escapes recovery systems altogether.

“And now we know that a lot of that is winding up in our lakes, rivers, oceans and communities globally,” Cummings said.

Showing depictions of the “5 Gyres,” which are vortexes of plastics pollution floating in the world’s oceans, Cummings pointed out that plastics pollution affects ecosystems and the food chain around the world, and has an economic impact of roughly $80 billion to $120 billion of lost value in unrecovered and unrecycled packaging.

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Plastics dumped in the waterways don’t stay there, rather, they make their way back to humans and animals through the food chain and environment.

Fiber choice, Cummings said, is also a factor, noting that in a study in San Francisco Bay, cotton fibers were found in smaller amounts than synthetic fibers, but “at the end of the day, cotton is biodegradable…and won’t have the king of long-lasting ecosystem harms that synthetic fibers will have.”

Anna Posacka, research manager of the plastics lab at Ocean Wise, an ocean conservation organization, said a recently completed study conducted with the cooperation of several apparel brands, including REI and Patagonia, found textiles shed in home laundering were among the largest contributors of microplastics pollution. While 99 percent of microplastics materials are captured at wastewater treatment facilities, billions of plastic particles are reaching the aquatic environment, Posacka said.

However, in analyzing 38 different types of fabrics, Ocean Wise found that “textile design plays a very important role in the process. In general, we found the trend that natural fibers tend to shed more than polyester and nylon,” according to the report.

There were also varied results on how much fiber was released after multiple washes.

Richard Venditti, professor of forest biomaterials at North Carolina State University, where he is involved in developing effective systems to transform renewable plant-based resources into sustainable products, said research he conducted in conjunction with Cotton Incorporated looking at various fabrics in washing, showed that all shed microfibers.

“We also found that cellulosic-based fibers shed more microfibers that did polyester,” Venditti said.

On the other hand, cotton and rayon, both cellulosics, biodegraded in water at a rapid pace, whereas polyester had virtually no degradation.

“The thing about polyester is that it is basically inert,” Venditti said.

Only recently has science and industry started coming together on the causes of microfiber shedding, and they’ve now started to seek solutions.

“There are enormous challenges around detection, quantification and fully understanding the impact that this new form of plastic pollution has on our environment,” Posacka said. “The complexity of the problem highlights the need to evaluate products for their environmental performance. These natural microfibers are becoming of increased concern.”

Cummings stressed that “solutions really need to start upstream with policy change and design change.”

There’s a need for better standards, such as on fiber shedability, she noted. The personal care products industry has been found through studies to be one of the worst contributors to microplastics pollution, and there’s a lot of work being done on new packaging for that sector.

Venditti said small changes people and society can make in their washing practices could be important in stemming the tide. Roughly 700,000 microfibers are shed during a typical-six-pound load of laundry, “a daunting number,” he noted, when you consider the problem that they have been found to cause.

“We are counting on our wastewater treatment plants so heavily,” Venditti said. “The textile industry has a very important role to play in determining what will happen to these fibers.”