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What Do We Know About Tiny Plastic Fibers in the Ocean?

Patagonia  /  Jun 20, 2016  /  6 Min Read  /  Our Footprint

Microscopic views of microfibers. Photos: Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at UCSB

Much has been written about the effects of plastic on the marine environment, from the Texas-sized Great Pacific garbage patch, to bottles expelled from cruise ships washed up on the beach, to “ghost” nets and weirs abandoned by factory-sized trawlers, and more. A new report on marine plastics was presented at the World Economic Forum earlier this year. It highlights the gravity of plastic pollution—“in 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the sea”—and notes that plastic packaging is the primary culprit. CNN proclaimed: “The world is flooded with plastic garbage.” The study finds that 95 percent of plastic packaging material is lost to the economy after a short single-use cycle, at a cost of $80-120 billion. The sizeable portion of this plastic that ends up in our environment takes an even greater toll, financially and on the health of the planet.

Packaging represents the biggest part of the problem, but it’s not the only source of plastic pollution. Recently, attention has focused on banning or advocating for the discontinuation of tiny plastic particles in the form of microplastic beads from cosmetics, toothpaste and other consumer products often too small to be filtered by wastewater treatment plants. These work their way from our sinks and showers through treatment plants and into the oceans, where they make their way into the digestive tracts of sea turtles, sea birds and fish (and, subsequently, humans).Microplastic waste also includes synthetic microfibers (less than 5mm in length) detached from synthetic garments—such as polyester fleece, nylon shorts or a wide range of other types of clothing—during washing that get past or around the filter systems in treatment plants. These synthetic microfibers can end up in the ocean, on beaches, and in rivers and lakes. Some end up on land. Some microfiber waste that is successfully separated in the treatment plant from liquid effluent still resides in sludge used to fertilize fields. This issue really hits home for us because many of our garments are made with synthetic fibers.

What we know and don’t know

We know a single synthetic garment can shed thousands of synthetic microfibers in a single wash. We also know synthetic microfibers, as opposed to microplastic beads, have an irregular shape that can pose a threat to smaller organisms—and may enter the food chain and work their way up to humans.

We also know we sell a lot of fleece; what we produce, combined with all the polyester and nylon products made and sold by other outdoor and apparel brands (and other industries), may constitute a significant problem.

However, as public discussion about synthetic microfibers in the ocean has grown, much is yet unknown. For example, we don’t know the extent of the harm to organisms and we don’t understand how any negative impacts from synthetic microfibers might compare to the broader issue of ocean plastic pollution (or to other pressing environmental issues, such as climate change). And we are just now getting an early sense of how potentially key variables, such as fabric quality or washing technology, may affect the path of microfibers from our homes to our oceans.

What Do We Know About Tiny Plastic Fibers in the Ocean?

Fibers captured on a 20 micron filter. A micron (or micrometer) equals one millionth of a meter (a centimeter is one hundredth of a meter). The fibers were captured by filtering washing machine effluent after washing a Patagonia jacket. The scale in the photo indicates the length of 1,000 microns. Photo: Shreya Sonar, Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at UCSB

Gaining a preliminary understanding

Last year, out of growing concern about this issue and a desire to investigate it on behalf of our industry, Patagonia commissioned a research project under the direction of Dr. Patricia Holden, an eminent environmental microbiologist at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The study, entitled “Microfiber Pollution and the Apparel Industry,” has just been completed, and you can view the results here.

The students that contributed to the project—including 2016 Master’s of Environmental Science and Management candidates Nicholas Bruce, Niko Hartline, Stephanie Karba, Bess Ruff and Shreya Sonar—did a great job under Dr. Holden’s supervision, and their study has helped us gain a better grasp on the issue. Although the influence of construction techniques was not tested, nor were different types of detergent used in the washing process, the study presented the following findings:

  • We and other makers of polyester and nylon textiles likely contribute a significant portion of microfiber pollution to the ocean; however, the quantity is unknown, as is the extent to which these fibers may harm the ecosystems in which they are found.
  • Brand and quality matters: in the study, a low-quality, generic brand fleece shed approximately 170 percent more over the course of its lifespan than Patagonia’s high-quality products.
  • Our washing machines represent an integral step in the path to pollution; we’ve learned that jackets washed in top-load washers shed approximately seven times as many microfibers than in front-loaders.
  • Wastewater treatment plants filter 65 to 92 percent of microfibers entering their system, but still release a significant volume of waste into the environment.
  • Fabric construction appears likely to impact shedding.

Further steps

We recently convened a group of scientists, academics and public advocates—including some we’ve funded over the years through our grants program—at Patagonia’s headquarters in Ventura for an open discussion about the current status of scientific research. Basically, we discussed what we know and, more significantly, what we don’t know. It was a very enlightening discussion on both fronts.

Further research is needed to understand the extent to which synthetic microfibers in the ocean harm the ecosystem. This information, in turn, will help us not only understand the problem itself, but also assess it in the context of the broader set of urgent environmental issues we face. This study nevertheless has given us an initial understanding about our contributions to the issue, and we hope others in our industry and beyond will read it closely as well.

With this initial information in hand, Patagonia will be taking a few steps in some key areas over the coming months.

  • Industry: We’ll work to bring our business colleagues and competitors together through the Outdoor Industry Association so we can build a collaborative approach to gain more knowledge and consider future action.
  • Materials: We’ll explore ways to integrate criteria to assess shedding of synthetic microfibers into our methods for research, testing, development and application of new materials within our product line.
  • Appliances: We’ll reach out to appliance manufacturers to initiate discussions about potential efforts to bring more effective filtering processes to industrial and home washing machines, as well as research how the mechanical design of washing machines, including agitation techniques, may affect the release of synthetic microfibers.
  • Grant Giving & Strategic Investments: We’ll continue to support nonprofit organizations working hard to bring awareness to the issue of microplastics in the ocean. (Through our grant program over the past five years, we’ve made approximately $180,000 in grants to groups working to address ocean plastics issues, including the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, Surfrider Foundation, the 5 Gyres Instituteand others. We’ve also invested in a waterless textile processing company called Tersus Solutions through our $20 Million & Change fund. Tersus’ technology has been applied in commercial laundering, and we hope their innovations may help reduce the prevalence of microfibers in wastewater over time.)

We live in a plastic-based economy and it’s clear there are a lot of areas where our use of plastic materials create waste that harms our environment. We’re learning more about the prevalence, impacts and source of synthetic microfibers in the ocean and elsewhere, and it’s clear this is an issue that demands our attention. At Patagonia we strongly believe that engaging directly with the challenges our industry may face—to broaden our knowledge and bring ideas together—will lead to better outcomes for the environment in the long run than seeking short-term fixes, and so we felt strongly about bringing a comprehensive update on this issue to our customers. We will keep you posted on our progress.


What can you do as a customer?

  • As always, don’t buy what you don’t need because everything we make—and everything you consume—has an adverse impact on the planet.
  • Make sure to buy high-quality, durable synthetic clothing when you do have a need.
  • Minimize how often you wash your fleece as much as possible.

On the larger issue of ocean plastics, NationSwell has a great list of things you can do to reduce your reliance on single-use plastics. We recommend you check it out.

Editor’s note: For the most recent news on this issue, please read our new post: “An Update on Microfiber Pollution.”

Updated 6/22/17: Changed top image

Updated 5/8/18: Corrected stats for front-load washers  

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