The Tiniest Plastic Pollutant? Fibers Set Loose
Synthetic fibers, such as polyester, nylon and acrylic, are incredibly common in today’s apparel market. What many don’t realize is that these fibers are essentially tiny pieces of plastic. And depending on how small the fibers are in a product, they might not be captured by a standard washing machine’s filter. This has allowed millions of synthetic fibers to wash into waterways. These tiny plastic fibers are not biodegradable and can accumulate in fish and other aquatic life, which may affect their lifespans and potentially continue up the food chain (Boddy, 2017). Compounding matters, fibers typically also carry chemicals from pesticides, dyes, or finishes on them that further contribute to the effect they have on whatever ecosystem they land in.
While studies on the topic of plastic fiber pollution began showing up nearly a decade ago, they really gained attention in 2015 with a study at UC Santa Barbara that looked specifically at fiber release from fleece jackets. On average, around 81,000 fibers can be released from a fleece jacket during a single washing (O’Connor, 2016). Studies have found that other synthetic garments can also release fibers into wastewater during washing. However, fleece products and garments with synthetic insulation in them tend to release more per wash (Cesa, et al., 2017).
Over various studies, some factors have been established regarding the process of fiber release (Cesa, et al., 2017). For instance, top-loading washers release significantly more fibers than front-loading washers. In addition, lower quality garments tend to shed more easily, and the first wash tends to release the most fibers. Some research also suggests that types of detergents and softeners used may cause more fiber release. However, their effect has not been clearly established.
Once the fibers leave the home, the water carrying them goes through filtering processes at municipal facilities. While wastewater treatment facilities capture the vast majority of plastic pollution, including fibers, before water is released, some tiny synthetic fibers still sneak through. In addition, not all facilities are up to the same standards or using the same techniques for filtration. Even top performing facilities can release a small amount that quickly adds up in the environment, considering the amount of water flushed through every day (Cesa, et al., 2017; O’Connor, 2016).
Many researchers, organizations, and brands are currently looking for all manner of solutions to this problem. Some solutions are short-term fixes, some long-term. Within the textile and apparel industry, new test methods are being developed, such as those by AATCC, in order to help catch issues before the textiles are used in products (Le, 2017). Long term, companies are looking for new methods of manufacture for fibers, fabrics, and finishes in order to reduce shedding. Outside of the textile and apparel industry, there are also calls for more capable filtration systems, both for in home washing machines and at wastewater treatment facilities. To jump start these initiatives, many are calling for increased collaboration between brands and organizations to better develop standards and practices (Le, 2017).
On the other hand, consumers can look for ways to prevent fibers from releasing in the near term. Aside from purchasing a front-loading washer, they can purchase special garment bags, such as the Guppy Friend being sold at cost by Patagonia, which captures fibers during washing. Similarly, consumers can use a Cora Ball to trap fibers during washing. A more permanent solution is to install a special filter on the washing machine to help trap lint and smaller particles. Washing synthetics, especially those with synthetic fleece or fill, less often, is also a good option, and much less of a drain financially. Another long-term solution that may be more widely available down the road is waterless washing, using liquid carbon dioxide. This technique is less likely to disperse fibers or their chemical finishes because it does not agitate garments and is also a closed-loop, waterless system.
One of the challenges in understanding and streamlining research on the topic of plastic fiber pollution is the terminology being used. Many studies and journalists are referring to this as ‘microfiber pollution.’ This seems to have come from the term ‘microplastic pollution’ discussed in environmental research (Cesa, et al., 2017). Yet, in the textile and apparel world, the term ‘microfiber’ is specific to synthetic fibers which are finer than 1.0 denier, making them finer than silk. However, the research done on fiber pollution is not always clear about how this term is being used, and many have a wide range of fiber size that they are discussing. As such, it can be a challenge to understand what the true nature of the problem is for those within industry who are trying to develop best practices and long-term solutions. As a result, there is a need to be consistent in the term used and the size meant across studies going forward.
Rachel LoMonaco-Benzing is a PhD candidate and graduate instructor, Textile and Apparel Management, College of Human Environmental Sciences, University of Missouri - Columbia
For additional information:
Boddy, J. (2017, Feb 6). Are we eating our fleece jackets? Microfibers are migrating into field and food. NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/02/06/511843443/are-we-eating-our-fleece-jackets-microfibers-are-migrating-into-field-and-food
Cesa, F.S., Turra, A., & Baruque-Ramos, J. (2017). Synthetic fibers as microplastics in the marine environment: A review from textile perspective with a focus on domestic washings. Science of the Total Environment, 598, 1116–1129.
Le, K. (2017). Microfiber shedding: Hidden environmental impact. AATCC Review, 17(5), 30-37.
O’Connor, M. C. (2016, June 20). Patagonia’s new study finds fleece jackets are a serious pollutant. Outside. Retrieved from https://www.outsideonline.com/2091876/patagonias-new-study-finds-fleece-jackets-are-serious-pollutant
Patagonia (2017, Feb 3). An Update on Microfiber Pollution. The Cleanest Line. Retrieved from https://www.patagonia.com/blog/2017/02/an-update-on-microfiber-pollution