Are Microplastic Clothing Fibers Filling our Oceans?

In 2011, ecologist Mark Browne released an alarming study revealing that tiny clothing fibers could be the biggest source of plastic in our oceans. It was found that these microfibers, such as nylon and acrylic, were predominately near sewage outflows. In other words, this is a man made problem. Browne, a "pioneer in mircoplastics research" has tediously examined shoreline sediment from around the world and his study has marked a milestone. 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. As the human population grows and people use more synthetic textiles, contamination of habitats and animals by microplatics is likely to increase. 

About 1900 of these fibers can be rinsed off a single synthetic garment.

About 1900 of these fibers can be rinsed off a single synthetic garment.

Concerned by his findings, Browne sought partnership to try and figure out the flow of synthetic fibers from clothing to the washing machine to the ocean. He reached out to big outdoor clothing companies such as Patagonia, Nike and Polartec with hopes for developing better textile design to prevent the migration of toxic fibers into our water system. However none of these prominent clothing brands agreed to lend support. In 2013 Browne presented his vision for a program called Benign by Design, backed by a team of engineers and scientists. The goal would be to develop synthetic materials that do no shed synthetic fibers- or do so minimally by are still cost effective, high performing, and if possible rely on recycled materials. Only one firm, women's clothing brand Eileen Fisher, offered support with a $10,000 grant for research. However, determining what type of plastic is in the water is hard and expensive sometimes up to $1000 per sample. 

“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.

The overwhelming challenge lies in determining how to measure the environmental impact of synthetic fabrics and how to go about change. Those fighting the use of microbeads in beauty products for example, have a more linear solution- removing the microbeads. Getting rid of synthetic fibers on the other hand will be extremely difficult. They are durable, versatile, and can have a smaller water and energy footprint than natural fabrics. Browne has also reached out to appliance manufacturers Siemens, Dyson, and LG trying to propose developing microfiber filters to prevent them from entering the water. He has yet to receive a productive response. While this fight for change might seem bleak there are things we can individually do to support clean oceans! 

  • Get what clothes you need at the thrift store before you head straight to purchase new clothes (per the advice of Macklemore)
  • Throw a clothes-swap party with your friends! Every person brings clothes they no longer want anymore, and everyone has the opportunity to shop through the wardrobe collection brought by each guest. Clothing can be for trade or sale!
  • Check out rawfortheoceans.g-star.com, a clothing line by Pharrell Williams with denim made from recycled ocean plastics 
  • Repair your clothes for as long as possible like Patagonia's Worn Wear Program, its commitment to creating long-lasting clothing that can be repaired for years to come (http://www.patagonia.com/us/worn-wear/)
  • Check out http://www.teeki.com, athletic wear made form recycled plastic bottles