Out With the Wash: Microplastics in Clothing
Posted on: April 12, 2016

Every Tuesday, we focus on Superior Environment stories. This article is part of a month-long focus on microplastics and their impact.

There’s a new offender in microplastics pollution which is often overlooked, and you’re wearing it.

Canadian Geographic reported recently that fleece and Gore-Tex clothing are major contributors to microplastics pollution. The article states that when garments made of synthetic materials are washed, almost 2000 plastic fibres can come loose and drain to water sources after the wash cycle. It cites a Swedish study to support its claim. Researchers were concerned by the effects of household discharge from Longyearbyen and sediment samples from the seabed in Aventfjorden.

The result was astounding: “Their work is not finished, but their findings so far are thought-provoking for environmentally conscious explorers: the wastewater from Longyearbyen contains huge amounts microplastics and the lion’s share of this originates from outdoor clothing. According to the researchers, more than 100 million particles go out every day.”

Microplastics and Clothing: Fast Facts

Microplastic Fibres less than 1mm. Photo via The Guardian
Microplastic Fibres less than 1mm. Photo via The Guardian

The Vancouver Aquarium has conducted similar research in the Vancouver area and greater British Columbia to demonstrate microplastics damage done by garments. Canadian Geographic spoke with Peter Ross, the director of the aquariums ocean pollution research program. His team released a study in 2015 which demonstrated that microplastics had entered the food chain through zooplankton. For the study, the research team considered four major areas in British Columbia: the Strait of Georgia; the west coast of Vancouver Island; the north coast of Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii; and  the Pacific Ocean. They found that the Strait of Georgia had the highest concentration of fibres.

Ross tells Canadian Geographic: “This basically told us that humans living in coastal environments are releasing thousands of microplastics through their laundry and waste water. The problem is world-wide from the Arctic to the Antarctic, and it’s far more extensive than we imagined.”

The findings may be shocking, but they certainly aren’t new.

Mark Browne researching microplastic fibres. Photo by Mark Browne, via The Guardian.
Mark Browne researching microplastic fibres. Photo by Mark Browne, via The Guardian.

Before that, a research paper released by ecologist Mark Browne in 2011 is described as being a ‘landmark’ in research on microplastic fibre pollution. Browne and his team of researchers presented findings from 18 shorelines over 6 continents worldwide. The fibre accumulation was more noticeable in densely populated areas, leading Browne et. al. to believe they were coming from acrylic, nylon, and polyester in clothing.

Eager to work toward a solution, he began work on a program called Benign by Design in 2013. He had support from major scientists and researchers at institutions around the world, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency. The goal was simple: get scientists and designers to work together on less-damaging synthetic material.

In 2014, The Guardian reported that Browne was having major difficulties garnering attention for his work.He sought help and partnership from major clothing brands like Nike, Patagonia, and Polartec. Each are known heavy hitters in the industry of outdoor apparel, which use a lot of synthetic fabric for their product. None of them offered help, however. Without grants and support, it was difficult for Browne to move ahead with his research.

It’s a frustrating cycle, he told The Guardian: “Industry is saying, ‘you just have to do more work on it’. But that will require someone to support it. It seems to be a way of avoiding dealing with the problem.”

The Guardian article notes that a Canadian has come up with a small scale solution. For Blair Jollimore of Nova Scotia, necessity really was the mother of invention: “After his septic tank backed up and flooded his home, he discovered the main culprit was lint from his washing machine. So the former airplane engine mechanic [. . .] created a filter for his home laundry machine. “I’m a mechanical engineer, so I modified a water filter and added stainless steel screen,” says Jollimore. “I’ve been using it for 14 years.”

Since 2003, Jollimore has been selling these filters worldwide.

The Guardian article helped raise awareness for Browne’s research and he told MissionBlue: Sylvia Earle Alliance in January 2015 that his research team had received a grant from the Australian Research Council. They were to investigate the microplastics issue further, specifically to see how it would affect the food chain. Guardian Australia reports that Browne spoke in February 2016 in Sydney at an Austrailian Senate Inquiry on the matter. He is currently listed as an ARC Senior Researcher with the University of New South Wales.

Nipigon Bay, ON, is seeing residual microplastics wash up from a train derailment eight years ago. On May 3rd, we will be hosting a public meeting at Lake Helen (15 min from Nipigon) to engage in productive discussion and solution brainstorming for this microplastics problem in our own backyard. Join us – more details to come!