The tiny pollutants in our clothes are forcing us to look harder for, and think more carefully about, the ways humans have shaped the environment
June 29, 2017 — Opening my washing machine at the end of a cycle is not something that generally fills me with excitement. But today it did, because doing so – I thought – would finally allow me to see and touch something I’ve been reporting on for years: synthetic microfiber pollution from apparel.
Instead, it illuminated something I already knew: my dog sheds a lot.
Multiple studies have shown synthetic fibers to make up the lion’s share of microplastics found in oceans, rivers and lakes, and clothes made from synthetics (polyester, nylon, and so on) are widely implicated as the source of that pollution. Microfibers, as the name implies, are tiny, so they can easily move through sewage treatment plants. Unlike natural fibers, such as cotton or wool, synthetic fibers do not biodegrade, and tend to bind with molecules of harmful chemical pollutants found in wastewater, such as pesticides or flame retardants. Studies have shown health problems among plankton and other small organisms that eat microfibers, which then make their way up the food chain. Researchers have found high numbers of fibers inside fish and shellfish sold at markets.
But I had recently received the Guppy Friend, a fiber-catching device and laundry bag made of a very fine nylon mesh developed by Alexander Nolte and Oliver Spies, surfing buddies and co-owners of Langbrett, a German retailer that sells outdoor apparel. So, I was excited because this bag is supposed to make this invisible pollution visible.
I was relieved that my 15-year-old fleece jacket and month-old nylon leggings did not fill the bag with a mass of lint. But when I also discovered that only a teeny bit of fiber (and a lot of dog hair, each strand likely bigger than the microfibers found in waterways) in the bag after washing a bright blue Snuggie (hey, it was a gift), I became dubious about how effectively this device captures fibers. Those doubts were confirmed after I dried the Snuggie and pulled gobs of blue lint from the dryer trap.
Many people, myself included, feel overwhelmed and occasionally terrified by the impacts of climate change. Dying and dead coral reef systems. Sea-level rise. Collapsing fisheries. It’s bad enough that plastic pollution is only adding to human-induced pressures on the oceans, but at least each consumer has the power to avoid single-use plastics, straws, and products that contain microbeads. Eliminating all synthetics from our wardrobes is a Herculean effort.
Plus, clothing is intimate and nostalgic. I hang on to torn and frayed polypropylene base-layers because my memories of harrowing and awesome adventures are woven into them. I wear a ratty poly-blend sweatshirt I consider an heirloom. And when I wash these things, tiny fibers I can’t see are jettisoned toward the sea. Some probably make it all the way there.
Of course, scientists have really only started pulling on threads here – we have yet to understand how much harm these fibers cause in aquatic environments, nor what they might mean for human health. We know a great deal more about truly invisible pollutants, however.
Take perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs). These have been used widely in manufacturing – including in textile manufacturing. Two of the most widely studied PFCs, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), have been linked in epidemiological studies to multiple types of cancer in humans and other health impacts. PFCs are so ubiquitous they’ve been detected in the blood of polar bears. And a new study found PFC pollution in the tap water supplies used by 15 million Americans in 27 states.
So, while scientists think the synthetic fibers shed from apparel are an environmental threat, they know that chemicals long used in apparel manufacturing are. That might cast those tiny fibers in a rather benign light, but that’s not what scientists I’ve interviewed think.
Peter Ross, a senior scientist at the Vancouver Aquarium, has studied ocean pollution for 30 years, and is now launching a study to develop a protocol for tracing synthetic fibers found in the ocean back to their specific sources. He told me microfibers, and microplastics in general, play an important role in communicating environmental impacts: they are a kind of bridge between the very tangible and the utterly intangible.
Because they are hard to see, these tiny pollutants make us look harder for, and think more about, the ways humans have shaped the environment.