In a sign that the tide is turning against toxic microplastics, a new coalition has been formed to try to stop microfibers from poisoning our oceans
September 8, 2016 — Two leading clean ocean advocacy groups have joined forces to stop tiny synthetic clothing fibers from polluting the world’s waterways and poisoning the food chain.
Plastic Soup Foundation (PSF), a Dutch nonprofit, and New York-based Parley for the Oceans announced Tuesday a partnership to tackle the issue of microfiber pollution and to create a global alliance of companies, governments, NGOs and scientists. Microfibers – tiny, often synthetic threads shed from laundry, industrial clothing manufacturing and fishing nets – have been found in alarming numbers in recent studies of microplastic pollution.
“Microfibers pose a massive and complex threat,” said Cyrill Gutsch, founder of Parley for the Oceans, in a statement. “It’s all about funding, supporting and boosting new technologies… [and] the best way to achieve this is together.”
The partnership comes after PSF launched its Ocean Clean Wash campaign earlier this year to educate washing machine manufacturers, fashion brands, environmental organizations and the public about the problem. PSF says already 100 nonprofits and other organizations have signed on to support the campaign, including Greenpeace UK and Austria, Plastic Pollution Coalition and Fauna & Flora International.
A June study found that synthetic fleece jackets release, on average, 1.7 grams of microfibers each wash. These small fibers aren’t easily filtered out at local wastewater treatment plants. The study, funded by outdoor clothing company Patagonia, found that up to 40% of these small fibers land up in oceans, rivers and lakes, threatening wildlife and ultimately our food chain.
Synthetic fibers such as acrylic, polyester and nylon pose the most danger because they don’t disintegrate and disappear over time. Instead, they break down into smaller, increasingly toxic pieces, allowing them to be consumed by fish and other animals. These tiny fibers have the potential to build up and lead to a potentially poisonous accumulation of chemicals in larger species. A study from the University of Exeter found that crabs contaminated with microfibers ate less food and that the polypropylene plastic broke into smaller pieces when ingested, leading to a greater spread in the body – and consequently a greater threat to human health.
Clothing companies have been slow to lend their support to the issue, although that’s starting to change. Patagonia says it continues to fund research and provide grants to explore ways to reduce the release of microfibers into waterways. Dutch clothing brand G-Star Raw announced earlier this year it was supporting PSF to raise awareness among fashion and textile companies about the damage their clothing can pose to the environment and to public health. According to PSF, nearly 40 fashion brands have agreed to collaborate as part of the partnership with Parley. The brands involved will be announced during a Call to Action event early next year.
PSF and Parley will work with other organizations to launch a competition next year to encourage scientists, inventors and clothing makers to come up with ways to stop the release of microfibers in the wash. The winners will be announced in 2018, and will receive a cash prize to implement their ideas.
According to PSF and Parley, possible solutions to the issue include a mechanical filter in washing machines to catch tiny fibers, synthetic yarns and fabrics that don’t release fibers in the wash and environmentally safe coatings that prevent microfibers from releasing when rinsed.