Fleeced again: How microplastic causes macro problems for the ocean
On Black Friday, outdoor retailer Patagonia took out a full-page ad in The New York Times asking readers to “buy less and to reflect before you spend a dime.” Beside a photo of their iconic fleece jacket, the headline read: “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” And, while their message about retail consumption undoubtedly made a splash, there may be yet another reason to take a pass on that cozy, modern outerware. Besides Patagonia’s confession that the process of creating the R2® Jacket leaves behind “two-thirds of its weight in waste” on its way to their Reno warehouse — it turns out that tossing the jacket in the washer causes it to leave behind something else entirely — thousands of tiny plastic threads.
According to a study published in November’s Environmental Science and Technology, nearly 2,000 polyester fibers can shake loose from a single piece of clothing in the wash and, unfortunately, those tiny plastic bits are making their way into the ocean.
Ecologist Mark Browne, University College Dublin, and several colleagues gathered sand samples from 18 beaches on six continents for analysis. It turns out that every beach tested contained microplastics (particles about the size of a piece of long grain of rice or smaller). Of the samples collected, nearly 80 percent were polyester or acrylic, though without further research, it’s impossible to know exactly which type of clothing — whether it’s your stretchy yoga pants or that super-soft fleece blanket — is causing the most problems. Currently, textile manufacturers are not required to test their fabrics for shedding.
According to Science, “Not a single beach was free of the colorful synthetic lint. Each cup of sand contained at least two fibers and as many as 31. The most contaminated samples came from areas with the highest population density, suggesting cities were an important source of the lint.”
Charles Moore, founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, which focuses on plastics in the marine system, says he’s been concerned about microplastics from all sources, including those body scrub microbeads that are as ubiquitous as the multi-blade holiday Remington razor this time of year. What worries Moore most is where those microparticles may ultimately end up.
Photo: epSos.de“Polyester is heavier than water and pollutes bottom sediments where most marine life lives,” he says. Once in the marine system, they get taken up by filter feeders like clams, mussels, and small fish like anchovies, sardines, etc., which are then eaten by larger fish.
That concerns Browne too. His work with shellfish has shown that once ingested by animals, microplastic can be taken up and stored by tissues and cells. This bioaccumulation of pollutants can have negative consequences for wildlife and humans.
Courtney Arthur, research coordinator with NOAA Marine Debris Program, says the issue is on NOAA’s radar, and expects research on microplastics and the effects on marine life to be a hot topic among scientists over the next few years. But for now, she says, the bottom line is still unclear.
“We don’t know the extent of injury at this point. We do know some marine animals ingest plastics, even down to mollusks like mussels and clams. We know it’s possible they could be accumulating in the food chain,” says Arthur. “All spectrum of marine life has the potential to take in these small particles, but at this point, it’s hard to say how much harm is being done.”
Although Browne and Arthur are cautious about making a direct link between microplastics and harm to marine life, there’s little disagreement that the recent increase in plastics pollution in the oceans is alarming. Several years ago, scientists discovered that plastics could break down at lower temperatures, leaking chemicals like Bisphenol A into the water.
So just how do we prevent the problem from getting worse? Moore says the place to filter the microfibers out is at the washing machine, well before particles move through the wastewater system and eventually into the ocean. So we contacted the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers to see if the industry had the capability of filtering microparticles before they reach the wastewater stream. Although their spokesperson did speak with Grist, they did not get back to us with a statement.
While Browne’s study focuses on the washing machine, Arthur also points out that simply wearing synthetic garments can also cause shedding.
He hopes designers of clothing and washing machines will focus on ways to reduce the release of fibers, and says further research is needed to develop methods for removing microplastic from sewage.
“Both government and industry need to work with us to determine the hazards natural and synthetic fibers pose for the health of humans and wildlife, so we can choose fibers that pose less of a risk,” says Browne.
So with months of bone chilling weather ahead, are you willing to swap your super soft fleece for something more sustainable? We asked both Browne and Arthur if they still own synthetics, and both said yes.
“I have some fleece, but with this type of research on our radar, I think twice before wearing it,” said Arthur.