What was the last thing you wore for a workout? For me, it was leggings and a tank top. They’re at least 80% polyester, kept me from keeling over in the middle of yoga, and will slowly pollute the ocean when I wash them tomorrow. Siiiigh. You’ve been lured into another Sad Marine News post by a discussion of athleisure, but stay tuned, because there’s a light at the end of the tunnel on this one!
First things first- how is your favorite workout gear a scourge of the oceans? It all comes down to what it’s made of. Check the care tag (unless you’ve cut it out- how are those things so itchy?) and you’ll probably see polyester listed. Polyester is a synthetic material, and most people would recognize one example of it from sorting the recycling: the #1 symbol, aka PETE (polyethylene terephthalate). When it’s tossed into your recycling bin, polyester might look like a water bottle, but that’s not its only incarnation. Whether it starts as virgin plastic or used PETE bottles, polyester can be melted, treated, stretched into threads, and spun into clothing. Synthetic fibers composed of other polymers are used to create fabrics such as nylon and spandex, and all synthetic fibers can be woven with natural ones like cotton or wool to make blended knits.
Hold on, you’re surely thinking. Plastic clothing?! That sounds scratchy and shiny and there’s no way I own anything like that. Well, you probably do, at least if you have a snuggly fleece jacket, a fun pair of leggings, or a sweat-wicking t-shirt. Synthetic materials are ubiquitous, especially in the sports world, because they’re sturdy and breathable. The problem with synthetic fibers isn’t that hikers wear fleeces while climbing Mount Mitchell, it’s that they wash those fleeces afterwards. Synthetic fabrics shed as they spin around in our washing machines, releasing a poof of tiny fibers thinner than a human hair. These microfibers are too small to be caught by standard filters, so like little plastic fugitives, they speed down the drain and through the water treatment plant, ultimately making their grand escape to the ocean.
Marine plastic pollution is a well-known problem, and has been documented so many times on UNdertheC that we should probably dedicate an extremely depressing section of the blog to it. Like microbeads, those tiny plastic spheres added to some cosmetics, microfibers are a type of microplastic. Microplastic debris is a problem, full stop, because it doesn’t break down naturally on relevant timescales. Eclipsing that issue is the fact that plastics sorb persistent organic pollutants (POPs). When marine critters ingest microfibers, not only are they eating plastic, they’re getting a side dish of toxins. There’s a lot of ongoing research about what that does to the animal, but thanks to bioaccumulation, any impacts are more severe to organisms higher up the food chain. That means that, when those hikers chow down on fish and chips after a long day, they could be eating the same thing they’re wearing: polyester microfibers. The scenario is beyond hypothetical at this point. An article on the topic by The Guardian opens with a description of a scientist looking at a fish from the Great Lakes under a microscope and finding microfibers “weaving themselves into the gastrointestinal tract.” Unless you examine your fish dinner with a microscope, well, bon appétit.
The issue only becomes more complicated the more one thinks about it. There’s no shutting the door on synthetic fabrics. President Obama signed a ban on microbeads in cosmetics in 2015, but that was relatively easy since they’re not essential to those products. You can’t make spandex bike shorts without spandex. In fact, there are some solid environmental benefits of synthetic fibers compared to natural ones. Synthetics don’t require the pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers used to produce plant-based fibers, and they typically last longer. They also offer a chance to repurpose items like plastic bottles (although some point out that doing so could help people justify their consumption of plastic bottles in the first place, and that converting bottles into tiny fibers may be more problematic than helpful). Washing machines could be fitted with special filters to trap microfibers, but there are already a lot of washing machines in the world that would keep spinning away in the meantime. It’s also possible to engineer wastewater treatment plants to capture at least the majority of microfibers, but that’s a huge endeavor with a price tag running in the hundreds of millions. Then there’s the fact that many people in the world don’t even have access to washing machines. If they wash their clothes in rivers, those microfibers are released directly into the waterways.
Right, so that’s the bad news. Let’s turn this around while there are still a few readers who can see through their tears! The good news is that microfibers are news. There have been a slew of popular articles on microfibers in recent months, and, perhaps more importantly, industries are paying attention. From what I can tell, the most vocal is the Outdoor Industry Association, perhaps spurred by the fact that fleece jackets have become the poster child for microfiber pollution. Their website details a robust set of priorities and partners. There are also scientists studying synthetic fibers themselves, trying to identify ways to prevent shedding by using microscopy to examine polymer fragments. Some regulatory efforts are focusing on washing machine manufacturers, since that’s a relatively small, manageable group. The EPA’s Trash-Free Waters program has begun structured interviews with these manufacturers in the hopes of adding innovations to limit microfiber pollution.
And what can you do if you don’t design washing machines or have an SEM microscope lying around? My most practical suggestion is to wash synthetic clothing less. That sounds like an exercise in social alienation, so be pragmatic, folks: your sweaty gym clothes probably do need to be washed after being worn twice, but your fluffy Patagonia, not so much. The way you wash synthetic clothing could matter too. Fleeces washed in top-loading washing machines have been shown to shed 5 times as many microfibers as those washed in front-loading machines, so you might want to save your synthetics for a trip to the laundromat if you don’t own a front-loader. You could also prioritize purchasing clothing made from sustainable fibers; this is one list of options.
Another suggestion is to become an inventor! Seriously, there are some nifty products on the horizon to help people limit their contribution to microfiber mania. The Cora Ball has coral-inspired textured spikes protected by a round cage. When thrown in a washing machine, the ball collects floating microfibers on the spikes. Another innovation in the works is Guppy Friend, proving that adorable product names are truly the way to fight marine pollution. Guppy Friend is basically a mesh pouch that retains microfibers while washing synthetic fabrics. With either product, the consumer empties all microfibers into the trash.
The general public is increasingly familiar with the problem of plastics in the ocean, and that’s leading to faster action. When I wrote about microbeads in June 2015, the most practical suggestion I could offer was to avoid a string of ingredients in face wash. Later that year, public outcry and advocacy tipped the regulatory scales, and a phase-out on microbeads was ordered in the US. The tunnel is more torturous for microfibers, but if there’s a light at the end, it’s probably because there’s a huge group of people holding their candles aloft.
For more info:
The 5 Gyres Institute microfibers webinar (an awesome resource that provided a lot of the material for this post)
Quartz article on synthetic clothing trends
Results of Patagonia’s microfiber study at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management
Very recent AP story about microfiber pollution in the US Gulf