Sunday 31 March 2019

The Tiny Plastics in Your Clothes Are Becoming a Big Problem – via Herp Digest

Microfibers from synthetic clothing can make their way into seafood and drinking water every time the garments are washed

Makers of sportswear and fleece jackets are trying to address concerns about tiny plastic particles from synthetic clothing finding their way into seafood and drinking water.

While the plastics backlash has focused on single-use products like straws, bottles and coffee cups, synthetic clothing is gaining attention because such garments shed plastic every time they are washed.

Each year, more than a half-million metric tons of microfibers—the equivalent of 50 billion plastic water bottles—enter the ocean from the washing of synthetic textiles, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, a Switzerland-based group that counts governments, nonprofits and charities among its members.

While all clothing sheds fibers when washed, synthetic particles—unlike wool and cotton—don’t biodegrade. Most conventional washing-machine filters aren’t designed to trap such tiny particles, and while wastewater-treatment plants capture a big slice, they don’t trap everything. The problem is worse in countries that use lots of synthetic clothing and have fewer wastewater-treatment plants.

Production of synthetic textiles has risen amid growing demand from the clothing industry.

The number of microfibers entering the ocean is forecast to accelerate as demand for clothes rises. More than 22 million metric tons of microfibers are estimated to enter the ocean between 2015 and 2050, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a nonprofit.

That is prompting new scrutiny and early attempts at regulation. Companies are now starting to look for ways to curb microfiber shedding.

Adidas AG , Hennes & Mauritz AB and Patagonia Inc. are among companies funding research into how microfibers are created, shed and end up in the ocean. They have found that how fibers are woven and clothes are washed matter.

“We are very concerned about microfiber leakage from synthetic fibers,” H&M’s sustainability head Cecilia Brännsten said. “We use synthetic fibers of course, and so it’s our responsibility that they don’t end up where they shouldn’t be.”

Microfibers are just one type of microplastic. The particles, less than 5 millimeters long, come from a range of other things like tires, toothpaste and marine coatings.

The U.S. and the U.K. are among countries that have outlawed personal care-products containing tiny plastic beads, such as facial scrubs and soaps, raising fears among apparel makers of a crackdown on textiles.

Textiles are a much bigger problem than personal-care products, contributing 35% of primary microplastics released into the ocean, compared with 2% from personal care, according to IUCN.

The World Health Organization is reviewing microplastics’ potential impact on human health after a study found plastic in 259 bottles of water from 11 different brands bought in nine countries. Microplastics have turned up in seafood, drinking water, beer, honey and sugar, according to studies, but the impact on human health is unclear.

Research shows that ingesting microplastics can hurt the ability of planktonic organisms to feed and the ability of fish and marine worms to gain energy from food.

Pending bills in New York and California, if successful, would require labels on clothes made from more than 50% synthetic material to tell consumers that these shed plastic microfibers when washed.

“It probably won’t change too many adults’ minds, but it can bring awareness where maybe 10-20 years from now that generation will be more conscious about microfibers,” said Felix Ortiz, assistant speaker of the New York state Assembly who introduced the bill in New York.

Nate Herman of the American Apparel and Footwear Association, a trade body, said the legislation is getting ahead of science and that more research is needed before slapping labels on garments. Mr. Herman was part of a working group set up by Connecticut last year to examine how the public could be educated about microfibers.

“We don’t know if synthetic apparel is a primary contributor to the microfiber issue,” said Mr. Herman. “There is very little way to accurately measure the impact of one type of thing versus another.”

H&M said it is exploring whether clothes can be designed to minimize shedding. The brand is monitoring the development of alternative biodegradable fibers, although it said there are limitations.

“You wouldn’t want to swim in a cotton bathing suit,” Ms. Brännsten said.

Researchers also have zeroed in on how clothes are washed. Outdoor-apparel brand Patagonia found fabrics shed lots of microfibers on the first wash, but few in subsequent washes. That suggests pretreating garments before they are sold could potentially capture and recycle what otherwise goes down consumers’ drains.

It also found types of washing machines matter. Jackets washed in top-load washing machines shed seven times as many microfibers as front-loaders.

Companies have started selling washing bags and balls intended to catch fibers in washing machines.

Adidas said it has developed a method to analyze the shedding properties of different materials and is sharing this with others to define a common, accepted standard. It also is drawing up specific measures it can outline to suppliers on how to mitigate shedding and handle waste.

Fleeces have been in the spotlight for shedding microfibers. One study found polyester fleeces shed 85 times more fibers than polyester fabric does. In Britain, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds stopped issuing fleeces to staff because of microfiber concerns. It is now examining other ways to keep staff warm.

Microfiber shedding can most effectively be addressed when textiles are being designed, said Richard Thompson, a professor at the University of Plymouth’s school of biological and marine sciences, who has researched the issue.

“The garments we have on shelves at moment we’ve arrived at almost by random, some are releasing four to five times more fibers than others,” Mr. Thompson said. “It’s not a requirement of the performance of those garments, it’s come because they haven’t put much thought into it.”

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