Textile pollution has been among the industry’s biggest problems—but it may be that the industry doesn’t grasp quite how big the problem is.
A recent study in the Marine Pollution Bulletin found that New York’s Hudson River could be contributing 300 million microfibers into the Atlantic Ocean every day.
After surveying the entire 315 miles of the Hudson in search of microfibers, researchers found them throughout the length of the river and uncovered 233 microfibers in 142 samples, or about one microfiber per liter of water. Fifty percent of the found fibers were plastic and the other half were fibers spun from things like cotton or wool.
Most of the dumped fibers are coming from laundry runoff dumped into the waterway. This polluted laundry water becomes even more polluted when clothing starts to age.
[Read more about water contamination in textiles: Mumbai Factory Shut Down After Untreated Waste Water Turns Dogs Blue]
“The ocean is the endgame for plastics,” PBS reported marine biologist Abigail Barrows, who is a principal investigator with Adventure Scientists, as saying.
Researchers filled submerged containers of water and filtered it to find the samples, and though they expected to see a greater concentration of microfibers near industrial sites or wastewater treatment facilities, that wasn’t the case at all.
“There was no pattern across the whole Hudson River—from Lake Tear of the Clouds, an alpine remote beauty, down to the heaving, thriving Manhattan,” said Rachael Miller, study co-author and director of the Rozalia Project, which is working to curb microfiber in laundry wastewater. “It was a real surprise.”
The problem with textile contamination, though, is bigger than laundry wastewater. Clothing sheds fibers into the air just in everyday use, and much of that ends up in waterways too.
Though scientists aren’t yet sure just how these fibers move through the air and into water sources, some believe ground runoff could have something to do with it. Others say winds could play a role and the problem of pollution could vary seasonally.
“We want to understand all of the [microfiber] sources and consequences for the environment. Only in understanding what those are, are we in a good position of coming up with solutions,” Tim Hoellein, an aquatic ecologist at Loyola University who was not involved in the study, told PBS. Hoellein in 2014 found that the microbeads that came in beauty and cleaning products were polluting wastewater, which led President Obama to ban the use of microbeads in these products. “Once we understood that it was there, where it was coming from, then we could make a change for the better.”