In a laboratory last year, an unusual study was carried out.
Using a Whirlpool washing machine, and fitting the drain hose with a high-grade nylon sieve, marine biologist Imogen Napper washed a series of fabric samples from chain-store jumpers.
Napper, a doctoral researcher at Plymouth University, carried out the study with Professor Richard Thompson, who leads the university’s Marine Litter Research Unit.
They were looking for plastic. Using an electron microscope, they studied the minuscule plastic fibres caught by the sieve, and worked out how many were shed by different types of fabric. The numbers were startling: more than 700,000 fibres for a 6kg wash of acrylic, 496,000 for polyester, and 137,000 for polyester-cotton.
“The worst culprit was acrylic, then it was polyester,” said Napper. “We all wear clothes that are synthetically made. A lot of people aren’t aware that they’re shedding pollution from the tiny fibres that come off when we wash them.”
The concern is precisely that they are so small – small enough to slip through washing machine filters and sewage treatment screens. It is why microfibres are more pervasive in marine environments than plastic bags or bottles.
Ironically, plastics are especially prevalent in the clothes we wear when we’re enjoying the environment – running, swimming, cycling, or climbing. The whole category of technical clothing is premised on the notion that we need specially-engineered (read synthetic) fabrics to do these things.
“Wait, what?” a friend asked when I told her about this story. “All activewear has microplastics?”
Well, it needn’t. But a lot of it does. Leggings are typically made of synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon and elastane. I have checked my gym gear, and it isn’t pretty: all contain plastic fibres. The sports bras. Those snug patterned tights that I used to love wearing before someone pinched them from the Icebergs change-rooms.
Then there’s the outdoors gear: the ubiquitous fleece made from recycled plastic, and the polyester rain jacket.
But a lot of our regular clothes contain synthetic fibres, too. In my case, it’s the J-Brand jeans that get their huggy-ness from polyester (8 per cent) and elastane (3 per cent). In the stretch-fest that was the skinny jeans trend, it was hard to find jeans that did not contain elastane.
Elasty-whatty, you might ask. That’s Lycra or Spandex, to use the brand names. To engineers, it’s a type of polyurethane. Specifically, a long-chain synthetic polymeric fibre.
NPR, the American national public radio broadcaster, has reported that it is found in 80 per cent of the clothes sold in the US. A 2010 report by Oerlikon Textile put annual global elastane production at 330,000 tonnes. We’re addicted to stretch.
Interestingly, when I look into elastane, I find little hard evidence about its shedding behaviour. This is a substance we have been using for half a century (it was invented by DuPont in 1958), and we haven’t checked if it’s a harmful pollutant.
This is the nub of the problem, says microplastics expert Dr Mark Browne of the University of New South Wales. “The difficult thing is there are 15,000 new chemicals that go on the market every day.” There is no mandated testing in most industries, with medical products being the exception to the rule.
Browne was the first to bring the issue to public attention. His landmark 2011 paper, the results of months spent studying shorelines around the world, showed that fibres make up 85 per cent of human-made material. They are everywhere from the poles to the equator and come from sewage outlets.
Microfibres are gobbled up by plankton, fish, larvae and mussels, threatening the food chain. Scientists say ocean plastic is consumed because it looks like food. In May, a biologist tweeted the video he had taken capturing the moment when an arrow worm, a tiny translucent type of plankton, ingested a plastic fibre. It blocked its gut.
“A horror story unfolds in the plankton,” tweeted Dr Richard Kirby. Elsewhere, he asked, “Will I ever again collect plankton without also seeing microfibres in the sample?”
Browne is collaborating with others on possible fixes, from new-generation washing machine filters to the engineering of non-shedding fibres. A product on the market now, the Guppy Bag, was developed by two German designers, Alexander Nolte and Oliver Spies, to catch fibres inside a washing machine. Nolte and Spies stress that this is a stop-gap option, and they are advocating for a standardised shedding ratings system.
Industry wants this too. It is on the agenda of the Outdoor Industry Association, the world’s largest outdoor trade industry association, whose members include Patagonia and Lululemon. Its sustainability director, Beth Jensen, has set up a microfibres taskforce.
Jensen would like to see a shedding ratings standard in two years, but concedes this is optimistic. She points out that natural fibres bring their own problems, like the pesticides and fertilisers required for cotton.
Of the labels I approached, none admitted to selling microfibre-shedding clothes, although Patagonia, Kathmandu and Lululemon acknowledge there is a problem and are funding research. Uniqlo was unavailable to comment.
The only label to explicitly admit to shedding microfibres is Girlfriend Collective, a Seattle-based activewear brand that uses recycled plastic. Its FAQ includes the question, “Did you know microfibres are released when we wash yoga pants?”
The admirably frank answer: “We absolutely know this.” They’re working on their own in-wash filter bag. But Browne cautions these bags are not backed by studies.
This is what we do know about marine plastic. Scientists have estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic by weight in the ocean than fish. We find plastic in every species of fish examined by researchers. And, because plastic can suck up toxins like heavy metals, these substances increase in the food chain too.
We have all gotten used to – inured to – this sort of bad news. It has become a part of the modern condition, like having a horror movie soundtrack constantly playing at low volume in the back of one’s mind.
Everything is bad, so why worry about it?
That’s a defensive posture, and it’s understandable. But some things are worse than others. Some textiles choke our oceans and some do not. It’s time we knew which is which.