Microfibers: Small Plastics, Big Problem

Rewind six years to 2011. I was on a sailboat with a team of maverick researchers from the 5 Gyres Institute trying to answer a simple question about plastic pollution: “How much is out there?” On expeditions covering each of the world’s major oceans, we sampled the water at various depths every 50 nautical miles, and in almost every sample we took, we found large amounts of plastic.

That discovery alone was a gut punch—plastic was indeed just about everywhere—but we quickly recognized something even more insidious: of the 5.25 trillion particles of plastic we estimated were in the oceans following those expeditions, 95% were smaller than a grain of rice.

Microplastics found during NOAA's 2014 Northwestern Hawaiian Islands marine debris removal mission.

Microplastics are small plastic pieces less than five millimeters long. These were found during NOAA’s 2014 Northwestern Hawaiian Islands marine debris removal mission. (Credit: NOAA)

 

We’ve all seen the pictures of dead seabirds, bellies full of bottle caps and disposable lighters, or dolphins and turtles entangled by plastic nets or bags. The impacts of our global addiction to plastic on these ‘charismatic megafauna’ have become the face of marine plastic pollution.

But what we recognized at 5 Gyres is that because 95% of the plastics in our oceans were really small—larger plastics that had broken down, but also microbeads from personal care products like body scrubs and microfibers from synthetic clothing—that critters at the base of the food chain were likely eating these microplastics as well.

Just a few short years later, we now know beyond a shadow of a doubt that so-called microplastics are corrupting sea life at the very base of the food chain. And while we don’t entirely understand how widespread the ingestion of microplastics is, nor exactly what it means for this food chain’s apex predators—you and me—there is more than enough evidence to take action today.

Microbeads: The First Step

Plastic microbeads in personal care products were banned in 2015.

Plastic microbeads in personal care products were banned in 2015. (Credit: MPCA Photos/CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

I’m often asked what to do about the plastic in our oceans, lakes and rivers. The truth is, the most important thing we can do is stop adding more!

Over the past two years, our team at the Story of Stuff Project—along with countless partners around the world—has been focused on plastic microbeads, the tiny bits of plastic that personal care companies were adding to everything from cosmetics to toothpaste. In late 2015, thanks in no small part to the advocacy of our million-person Story of Stuff Community, President Obama signed the Microbeads Free Waters Act, barring the use of plastic microbeads in personal care products sold in the United States. Other microbeads bans have taken hold worldwide.

Microfibers: The Next Fight

Now, we’re leveraging the global attention microbeads brought to the issue of microplastics to focus the public’s attention on another tiny threat: microfibers, the plastic bits that wash off of clothing made from synthetic fabrics like polyester.

Five years ago, European researcher Mark Browne released a groundbreaking study that found widespread microplastic pollution on shorelines and coastal waters around the world, particularly near densely populated areas. One significant source of this pollution was synthetic clothing fibers, less than 1 mm in size, that are discharged from clothes washers, through water treatment and into the environment.

Then in 2015, our friends at the San Francisco Estuary Institute released a study on microplastic pollution in San Francisco Bay, finding that on average, water treatment facilities released an estimated 7 million particles of microplastic per day into the Bay—the largest Pacific estuary in the Americas. The biggest sources were found to be plastic microbeads and, you guessed it, synthetic clothing fibers.

And then last summer, outdoor clothing company Patagonia released a U.C. Santa Barbara study it commissioned that found that a single fleece jacket could release as many as 250,000 plastic fibers!

For the past year, we’ve studied the research, talked to advocacy partners, met with retailers and investigated solutions. Now, we’re releasing an important short movie that outlines the problem with microfibers, to spur investments of time and money in finding and fielding solutions.

The sheer scale of the problem is immense—in the United States alone, it is estimated that there 89 million washing machines doing an average of nine loads of laundry a week. Each load can emit anywhere from 1,900 fibers to 200,000 per load, a nightmare scenario. Though wastewater treatment in developed countries catches a large portion of the fibers in the processing of sewage, the solids in which those fibers are captured are often land applied as fertilizer. So, we’re adding synthetic fibers to our soil and our sea at the same time.

While banning microbeads was a relatively easy systemic change (eliminate them from commerce; scrub with something else), eliminating fiber pollution is a much bigger, much more challenging objective. About 60% of all clothing on earth is made of polyester, a form of plastic derived from fossil fuels, in part because synthetic materials perform like no other fabric in existence for their water wicking, breathability, and stretch factors

While some companies have started to suggest interim solutions, like a bag that captures fibers from clothing washed in it, we believe a larger systemic Solution is the only true answer. And we believe that Solution has to be pursued primarily by the companies who sell clothing that pollutes, whether or not they intended to create the problem. Its their responsibility to not just diminish their impact, but to stop microfiber pollution on the front end, with new fabric designs, for instance.

That doesn’t mean we’re taking an adversarial stance with industry, nor that they’re the only stakeholder with a role to play. Advocates, scientists, designers and many others have to be involved too. But we need clothing companies to step up in a big way and we made our new film to create awareness and mobilize our global community to demand just that.

We need you to add YOUR VOICE to the thousands of Story of Stuff Community members demanding Solutions. We are so much stronger when we push together. So what are you waiting for? Join us!

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