Earlier this month, researchers reported a startling discovery: in 11 national parks and protected areas in the western US, 1,000 metric tons of microfibers and microplastic particles fall from the sky each year, equivalent to over 120 million plastic water bottles—and that’s in just 6 percent of the country’s land area. Last month, another group described how the ocean is burping up microplastics, which then blow onshore via sea breezes. And last year, still more scientists reported that 7 trillion microplastic particles flow into the San Francisco Bay annually.
Scientists have known about microplastic pollution (technically, bits less than 5 millimeters long) for decades, but the almost unbelievable pervasiveness of the stuff in the environment has really become clear in the last few years. Its ubiquity has coincided with the rise of fast fashion—cheap synthetic clothes that during each wash shed perhaps 100,000 microfibers, which then flow out to rivers and oceans through wastewater. (Consider that 70 years ago, the textile and clothing industries used 2 million tons of synthetic materials; that figure had skyrocketed to almost 50 million tons by 2010.) Everywhere scientists look, these microfibers turn up; they’re blowing into the Arctic and to the tops of (formerly) pristine mountaintops. In that study of US protected areas, 70 percent of the synthetic particles researchers trapped in their samples were microfibers.
There’s simply no putting the plastic back in the bottle; once it’s out in the environment, it just breaks into smaller and smaller bits, infiltrating ever more nooks and crannies. But a growing number of environmentalists and scientists want to hold those responsible for microfiber pollution—largely the fashion industry and makers of washing machines—to account, and to stem the flow of tiny plastics into Earth’s systems.
“Nearly 13,000 tons of microfibers may be entering the marine environment just from Europe’s countries alone,” says Nicholas Mallos, senior director of the Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program. “Scaled globally, other estimates say maybe 250,000 tons of plastics via microfibers are entering our waterways and oceans. So those are not insignificant numbers, even though we’re talking about a very, very small vector of pollution.”
Let’s start with how these plastics make the jump from your home to the outdoor environment. When you wash your synthetic clothing, tens of thousands of microfibers go out with the wastewater in each load. That water flows to a wastewater treatment facility, which might remove anywhere between 83 and 99.9 percent of the fibers, depending on how advanced the facility is, before pumping the rest out to sea. Even given this filtration, a city the size of Toronto could still be emitting hundreds of billions of microfibers each year, according to one study from 2018 by researchers at the University of Toronto.
So, if we just retrofit our wastewater treatment plants to filter out more microfibers, could we be done with it? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. “Even the most advanced plants out there still have fibers in their effluent,” says Mallos, who coauthored the Toronto paper. “So this would be a very expensive fix to make.” And in the era of Covid-19, with government revenues cratering, it will be hard for environmentalists to make the case for spending what little money is left on microfiber mitigation.
Also a problem: The byproduct of wastewater treatment is sludge, a solid organic material that also contains the filtered-out microfibers. This sludge is used to fertilize fields. Once it eventually dries out, the microfibers could take flight on the wind. “We’re simply kind of reallocating where those fibers may go and perhaps re-enter the environment,” says Mallos. “The most effective way to get them out of the environment is to prevent them upstream, stopping them from entering our waterway systems in the first place.”
That means washing machines. Mallos and his colleagues found that a device called a Lint LUV-R filter hooked up to a machine can capture an average of 87 percent of microfibers in a wash. Scaling that up, they calculated that if every household in Toronto had one of these, it would prevent 20 to 31 trillion fibers from entering the city’s wastewater each year.
Such filters are actually common for washing machines in Japan, but not in the United States and Canada. “So it’s not an unprecedented action we’re talking about,” says Mallos. “It’s just thinking about, ‘OK, how do we rethink the products that we are making to ensure we are preventing unintended consequences downstream?’”
Until washing machine manufacturers begin adding filters, another option is to put your clothes in a special bag like the Guppyfriend, essentially a fine mesh that traps the microfibers sloughing off your fabrics. Or you can buy one of those Lint LUV-R filters yourself and strap it to your washing machine. But to get real movement going to form a cohesive first line of defense against microfiber pollution, Mallos and other environmentalists believe that manufacturers need to start including microfiber filters in every new machine they sell.
It’s not clear whether US manufacturers are considering such a move. A request for comment sent to GE, which makes a range of washing machines, was not returned. A representative for Maytag referred WIRED to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, which also did not return a request for comment.
In the meantime, what about cleaning products—might detergents and fabric softeners actually make synthetic clothes shed more microfibers? So far, the findings have been mixed. One study from 2017 conducted by researchers in Sweden found that detergent increased the number of fibers shed by three kinds of fleece fabrics. They hypothesized this could be for two reasons. One, detergents work by decreasing surface tension, allowing dirty particles—and microfibers—trapped in woven loops to escape. And two, detergents work as “dispersing agents,” keeping dirt dissolved in water from falling back into the textile. Detergents may also help suspend microfibers, which then flow freely out with the wastewater.
A study a year later from researchers in Italy and Spain found that compared to washing woven polyester in water, the number of microfibers released per gram of fabric increased nearly eight-fold with liquid detergent and nearly 22-fold with powder detergent, perhaps because the grittiness of the latter encouraged friction between fibers. The study also found that fabric softener reduced microfiber emission by 35 percent for the opposite reason: reducing friction between fibers. But a 2016 study from researchers in Slovenia found that both detergents and fabric softeners had little effect.
These discrepancies are due in part to a lack of standardization when it comes to such experiments. Different teams use different kinds of synthetic fabrics of different ages, try out different detergents and softeners, and use different models of washing machines with different wash cycles. Researchers also use different methods for counting the particles in the lab—some do it by sight under a microscope, others might deploy machine vision techniques to automatically count the plastic. That’s because the study of microplastics and microfibers is a young field that’s still maturing in its methodologies. But these variables affect study results: For example, you’ll get a higher count of particles if you use a finer filter versus a coarser one, which will let the tiniest bits through.
That said, writing earlier this month in the open access journal PLOS One, researchers from Northumbria University and Procter & Gamble—yes, a manufacturer of detergents and fabric softeners—took their own stab at the effect of such products on microfibers shed in the wash, experimenting with both high-efficiency machines and traditional top-loading machines. Washing actual loads of laundry gathered from UK households and brought into the lab, they found that detergents and fabric softeners had no effect on microfiber shedding.
Instead, they pointed the finger of blame at the washing machines themselves, specifically how water moves through clothes. You might assume that synthetic clothes will shed more microfibers if they’re packed tightly in a big wash, rubbing against one another. But these researchers found that high-efficiency machines, which use less water, also created less fiber loss. “The big surprise is really that it’s not all about agitation,” says Procter & Gamble researcher Neil Lant, lead author on the paper. “The big reason for fibers being lost in washing is actually the force of water flowing through the textiles and the yarns. And that’s what actually causes unplucking of fibers.”
The age of the clothes matters, as well. Lant and his colleagues found that new garments are the highest shedders—maybe thanks to loose fibers left after the manufacturing process. “When you get to about washing them six to eight times, you then get to a minimum level of release, and it stays at that minimum level, pretty much forever,” says Lant. “And we did testing up to 64 cycles.”
When asked if some people might be critical of a study funded by a detergent company that concludes that its products aren’t exacerbating microfiber shedding, Lant notes that the research was peer-reviewed before being published in PLOS One. “That data goes through a very, very large amount of scrutiny before it finds its way to publication,” he says. In the paper’s funding disclosure, the authors note that Procter & Gamble provided funding, but did not have any say in the study’s design, data collection and analysis, or preparation of the manuscript.
“They might think that we’re just here to sell more detergent and fabric softener,” Lant says. But, he continues, “this has been done with a lot of academic research, professors with many years of expertise, and the work has gone under an enormous amount of scrutiny.”
But University of Strathclyde microplastic researcher Steve Allen takes issue with the study. “It’s not repeatable,” he says. “They’ve got laundry loads from citizens, which is great, but we don’t know what was in those loads. They didn’t tell us any of the demographics of who was supplying clothing. We’ve got some photos of loads of washing, but we don’t know what was in it.”
“I’m not saying that their science is particularly wrong,” Allen continues. “I don’t like how they did it, and I certainly wouldn’t cite it.”
Whether or not detergents affect microfiber release, we can’t lose sight of holding the polluters to account. Consider what the producers of single-use plastics did over the past few decades: They harped on the importance of recycling, arguing that we as consumers aren’t careful enough about properly disposing of the stuff. But a more effective solution would be cutting demand and production of single-use plastics. Same for fast fashion.
“It’s got to be a prevention strategy—fast fashion just has to go,” says Marcus Eriksen, chief science officer and cofounder of the 5 Gyres Institute, a nonprofit that fights plastic pollution. “The idea of when Pharrell wears one piece of clothing or a fancy hat, there’s suddenly thousands of hats in the market—and then in a few months they’re all in landfills.”
The challenge of convincing people that they should stop making and buying fast fashion is that there isn’t much data yet on how microplastics and microfibers might adversely affect human health. That may give polluters wiggle room to put off mitigation, and make the public less likely to demand action. Scientists know we’re eating and drinking heaps of the stuff, and breathing it deep in our lungs. “Is there harm?” asks Eriksen. “We’re still trying to figure that out. But I think if you use the precautionary principle, we can stop that flood of microfiber into the world because it’s now global. Why wait until there’s harm, at that point?”
In at least some corners of the fashion industry, companies are indeed taking notice of the problem. “The industry has been working to create a standard method of testing for microfiber shedding,” says Elissa Foster, senior manager of product responsibility at outdoor apparel maker Patagonia, which has been lab-testing its own wares for shedability. “We started to get a sense for if our products were shedding, and how much they were shedding.”
It’s not just the synthetic fabrics that are the issue, she says, but also their construction in a garment. “So was it woven or was it knit?” Foster asks. “And then also the construction of the yarn—like what kind of twist it has. And how much of a twist? And then also any sort of finishing processes that happen to a fabric: Is it washed in some sort of finishing process? Is there any sort of mechanical finishing that’s done to it? So all of these things are factors that we are looking at.”
Foster says that Patagonia doesn’t yet have products on the market that have been retrofitted with lab tests of shedability in mind. But it’s a sign that legacy brands that produce quality clothing, at least, are starting to take microfiber shedding seriously. Still, if fast fashion companies suddenly decide to slow down and adopt higher-quality materials that don’t spew so many microfibers into the environment, we’ll eat Pharrell’s hat.
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