Will clothes companies do the right thing to reduce microfiber pollution?

The polluted Tiete river in Pirapora do Bom Jesus, 40km north-east of Sao Paulo in Brazil. It is estimated that a single fleece jacket can release a million fibers in a single washing.
The polluted Tiete river in Pirapora do Bom Jesus, 40km north-east of Sao Paulo in Brazil. It is estimated that a single fleece jacket can release a million fibers in a single washing. Photograph: Paulo Whitaker/Reuters

Over the past few years, evidence has been mounting that synthetic textiles such as polyester and acrylic, which make up much of our clothing, are a major source of pollution in the world’s oceans. That’s because washing those clothes causes tiny plastic fibers to shed and travel through wastewater treatment plants into public waterways. These microfibers are sometimes inadvertently gobbled up by aquatic organisms, including the fish that end up on our plate.

The apparel industry is largely responsible for stopping microfiber pollution, yet it has been slow to respond, according to a report released Tuesday by Mermaids, a three-year, €1.2m project by a consortium of European textile experts and researchers. The report recommended changes in manufacturing synthetic textiles, including using coatings designed to reduce fiber loss.

Maria Westerbos, director of the Plastic Soup Foundation, an Amsterdam-based nonprofit and Mermaids’ public outreach partner, urges the apparel makers and sellers to apply the report’s recommendations.

“So far we have hardly seen any effort from the clothing industry to tackle the problem at the source,” she said.

The Mermaids report is the latest research effort to quantify the environmental and health impact of microfiber pollution and offer potential solutions. Researchers studying plastic pollution started discovering microfibers in the early 2000s but it was not until a 2011 study, by ecologist Anthony Browne, that microfibers were linked to the apparel industry. He sought research funding from the apparel industry but received little support.

In recent years, additional studies revealed the enormity of the problem. It is estimated that a single fleece jacket can release a million fibers in a single washing. Numbers like that stunned the public, but only a few brands have launched or completed studies to determine how many fibers their products shed, or whether fibers found in the environment can be traced back to their products. None have announced design-based solutions that would result in products that shed fewer synthetic fibers, something that The Story of Stuff, an environmental group, called for in a short film earlier this year.

Canadian retailer MEC and outdoor apparel brand Arc’teryx recently commissioned researchers at the Vancouver Aquarium to develop a protocol for tracking synthetic fibers from the source – their apparel – to the ocean. The firms hope the protocol will become an industry standard that other brands will use as well.

Last year, Patagonia released findings from a lab-based study to quantify fibers shed from its products in the wash. However, the tests did not use detergent, which multiple studies have shown significantly increases fiber loss, so the results do not reflect real-world conditions.

Meanwhile, stopgap measures are emerging. A German company recently created Guppy Friend, a fiber-catching mesh bag for holding synthetic clothes while washing them. The inventors of another device, Cora Ball, recently raised just over $353,000 through Kickstarter when they sought only $10,000 to bring the product to the market. Cora Ball, tossed into the washer with the clothes, attracts and entangles fibers. But it’s impossible to know at the moment how successful these new devices will be.

Mermaids’ report also suggested new formulas for laundry detergents to help minimize fiber shedding. It also advised consumers to stay away from powder detergent, especially those with added oxidizing agents to remove tough stain because they produce the highest fiber loss during washing. Short, gentle wash cycles in cool water are best, and fabric softener helps reduce shedding, too. Last year, Mermaids launched a public awareness campaign to get the word out.

The contamination is getting worse. Just this week, an advocacy group, Center for Biological Diversity, called on the California State Water Board to rule that plastic pollution is a significant problem in its coastal water, a determination that could prompt new policies to regulate companies selling plastic, says Blake Kopcho, the group’s ocean campaigner. The group points to the findings of a 2016 study by the San Francisco Estuary Institute that estimates that wastewater treatment facilities discharge 56 million microplastic particles, nearly all microfibers, into the San Francisco Bay each day.

Researchers launched Mermaids in 2015 and set an ambitious goal to cut the amount of microfiber shedding during washing by 70%. The Italian National Research Council led the research, with help from Polysistec, a maker of textile coatings, and Leitat, a Spanish research council.

The Mermaids researchers pinpointed factors in the manufacturing of polyester and acrylic textiles that influences the amount of fibers that could be shed from a finished product while it is being laundered, or even during normal wear. They then recommended changes, such as lowering the melting temperature during yarn production to improve it tensile strength and reduce the likelihood of breakage. There are tradeoffs to changing manufacturing processes, however, and some could lead to slower production rates.

The researchers also evaluated a range of coatings, or chemical treatments, for their ability to inhibit fiber loss. The coatings that are already used by textile makers, such as silicone and acrylic finishes, produced mixed results, ranging from zero reduction to cutting fiber loss by as much as 40%. One of two bio-based finishes, chitosan, which is derived from crustacean shells, reduced fiber loss by up to 50% compared to no coating.

While the Mermaids report offers recommendations, it doesn’t spell out the financial and technical difficulties of implementing manufacturing changes. Textile and apparel makers so far seem unconvinced that they should invest in those changes.

MEC and Patagonia declined to comment on the Mermaids findings, and representatives from both companies said they would not be bringing the Mermaids recommendations to their textile partners in the short term. Instead, they called for more study.

Further research remains necessary to have a deeper understanding of the environmental and health impact of microfiber pollution, scientists say. For example, while research has shown that small organizations such as plankton can get sick from ingesting fibers, there isn’t enough data to determine large-scale, ecosystem-wide impacts from microfiber contamination or whether they threaten human health.

Knowing the extent of microplastic contamination is crucial for coming up with effective ideas and regulations to tackle it, says Natalia Ivleva, a professor at the Institute of Hydrochemistry at the Technical University of Munich. Ivleva and her colleagues dug into highly publicized research that purported to find microfibers in 24 different brands of German beer, and found that the means by which researchers identified contaminants was unreliable.

“Chemists, analysts, polymer scientists all need to come together” to advance thorough, highly vetted research, she says. Meanwhile, she says, ecologists face “a huge job” in determining the extent to which all types of microplastics are impacting aquatic organisms and, ultimately, us.