The Quiet Polluter

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In Paris right now leaders of the most powerful countries in the world are meeting to discuss one of the biggest threats to civilisation. No, not ISIS, global warming. The summit started the day before yesterday and will continue for two weeks, with more than 150 heads of state and representatives of 195 governments, this is set to be the biggest COP meeting yet. According to Grist, no previous COP meeting has brought together so many countries and heads of state, so there is some reason to be optimistic. Climate change and pollution have been global issues for a long time now, and our governments are taking steps (some smaller than others) to try and combat this issue. However, are we forgetting an extremely important contributor to pollution?

Around the same time as the 5p bag charge came into effect and every tabloid was losing its mind, another article was published, but less widely reported, on the dangers of synthetic clothing fibers. We all know certain fibers can be dangerous, particularly asbestos, but what about the microfibers in our clothing? Ecologist Mark Browne was

Around the same time as the 5p bag charge came into effect and every tabloid was losing its mind, another article was published, but less widely reported, on the dangers of synthetic clothing fibers.

examining sediment along shorelines around the world when he noticed that there were tiny synthetic fibers everywhere, but they were particularly prevalent near sewage outflows. Essentially, they were coming from us. 85% of the human-made material found on the shoreline were microfibers, matching up with the types of material we see in everyday clothing such as nylon and acrylic. Browne has estimated that around 1,900 individual fibers can be rinsed off a single synthetic item, which eventually ends up in our oceans. Sherri “Sam” Mason, a chemist with the State University of New York said “When we launder our clothes, some of the little microfibers will break off and go down the drain to the wastewater treatment facility and end up in our bodies of water”. Materials such as fleece are not biodegradable, and these tiny bits of plastic that are coming off of our clothes when we wash them are being consumed by small fish and filter-feeders such as oysters and clams. Though scientists are still trying to figure out how much of a risk this is to human health, there’s no doubt that marine life consuming plastic glued to toxins is not healthy.

Tiny plastic fibers taken from a water sample in Blue Hill Bay in the gulf of Maine. Photograph: Marine Environmental Research Institute Image taken from The Guardian

Alarmed by what he had discovered, Browne contacted prominent clothing brands for help. He sought out potential partnerships to try to determine the flow of synthetic fibers from clothing to the washing machine to the ocean. However, the leaders in the outdoor apparel industry – who use a lot of synthetic fabrics- such as Nike and Polartec didn’t agree to lend support. In 2013 Bowne received backing from a team of engineers and scientists from academic institutions as well as the Environmental Protection Agency. Their goal is to help the industry tackle the problem of the synthetic microfibers making their way into the waterways and marine ecosystems. They proposed creating working groups where scientists and industry representatives would work together to develop materials that do not shed synthetic fibers. Again, he received little support, though Eileen Fisher, a women’s clothing brand, offered to support him and gave him a grant of $10,000.

Browne spoke to the vice president of Polartec’s advanced concepts and business development group, which he then followed up with an email asking if Polartec could provide him with the polymers form their textile products so Browne could grow his database. He heard nothing back from them, though Polartec claim that they have carried out their own study, and that the effects were ‘minimal’. However, everyone knows that a scientific study isn’t a true scientific study if it isn’t peer reviewed, but Polartec are not sharing the study or the details publicly. The textiles industry has come under scrutiny many times for environmental reasons, and according to the World Bank, textile manufacturing generates up to 20% of industrial wastewater in China. Getting rid of synthetic fibers is extremely difficult, and it would be costly and take a lot of time to create an alternative. Not only this, but synthetic fabrics are durable, versatile, and have a smaller water and energy footprint than natural fabrics.

Browne concedes that more research is required to further our understanding of the sources and impacts of synthetic microfibers in the environment, and wishes he could get clothing companies on his side. So there is little we can do for now, except raise awareness for this quiet yet damaging polluter.

Holly Martin

Feature picture from here.

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