Preventing Microfibres From Entering Oceans, One Fleece at a Time

When we think of plastic pollution, the first images that often come to mind are plastic bags and water bottles piling up on beaches and drifting in ocean currents. But in 2011 ecologist Mark Browne made a startling discovery that proved that this was not the whole picture. Browne collected samples from shorelines around the world and tested them for pollution content. What he found was a high concentration of synthetic microfibres from common materials such as nylon and polyester, far higher than anyone had predicted.

Microplastics are tiny particles of plastic less than 5mm wide, and they have been recognized as major pollutants by governments internationally. Research shows that the small organisms at the base of ocean food chains will eat microplastics rather than biological material, causing them to suffer reproductive problems and higher mortality rate. A population crash among these species would cause a dire chain reaction for every organism above them in the food chain, including humans. Both the European Union and the United States have banned microbeads, tiny plastic particles once added to beauty products by the cosmetics industry. But microplastics also come from larger plastic waste as it degrades over time and, as Mark Browne discovered, from the fibres in synthetic clothes.

  • Patagonia is undertaking independent research to study the amount of microfibres shed from their products.

Global awareness is slowly rising about this concern. In Europe, government funded researchers and non-government organizations are already studying the issue. A few forward-thinking brands, such as Eileen Fisher, are taking an active role in environmental stewardship. Outerwear brand Patagonia initially declined to help further scientific study, but have since reversed their stance and initiated research of their own. Their findings are indeed disheartening, but a number of strategies have been proposed to curb the flow of mircofibres into oceans.

Scientists are seeking to develop new synthetics that do not shed, or coatings to decrease the fibres lost from existing synthetics. But one of the most effective solutions may also be one of the simplest: adding a filter to all washing machines to capture lost fibres before they enter the wastewater system. Washing machine manufacturers may be the unlikely leaders in the quest to reduce microfibre shedding.

For clothing designers, thinking about the whole life-cycle of a garment and choosing natural materials such as hemp, bamboo, organic cotton and linen may be part of the solution. Designers and consumers can also take an active role in their purchasing choices and let brands know they want cleaner fabrics.

We hope to see raised awareness of this issue in the fashion community and, perhaps, a new era of collaboration between designers and the science and education community to tackle this important issue.

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