You’ve cut down on the number of plastic water bottles you buy. You make sure to load your groceries into reusable fabric totes, forgoing the plastic bags the store offers. And when you buy canned drinks held together by six-pack rings, you are always careful to cut each one of the plastic straps in half, so that it could never end up as a strangling collar on a seal.
But recent research is showing that something else is becoming an even larger threat to our world’s waters than big, plastic items: polar fleece microfibers.
From insulating jackets to comfy pajamas, we have been in love with the texture and warmth of synthetic fleece since its debut in the late 1970s. It even appealed to our green sensibilities, since it was a great way to recycle all those discarded plastic milk, soda and water bottles. In fact, in 2015, the outdoor clothing manufacturer Polartec will reach a milestone: it will have turned one billion plastic bottles into fleece.
Now, however, we’re learning that our most beloved outdoor fabric has a dark side: it’s polluting our waterways in tremendous and toxic ways.
When being tiny makes for a titanic ocean problem
According to a report that was first published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology in 2011, a single fleece jacket can shed 1,900 tiny, synthetic microfibers—exceedingly fine filaments made of petroleum-based materials, such as nylon and polyester—every time it’s washed. The study’s lead author, Dr. Mark Anthony Browne of the University College Dublin in Ireland, and his team tested 18 shorelines on six continents. At each location, they found microplastic fiber contaminates and observed that the highest concentrations appeared near wastewater-disposal sites. Forensic analysis showed that the acrylic and polyester fibers came from clothing put in washing machines.
Although it seems counterintuitive, the tiny dimensions of microplastics—unlike the bigger pieces in gyres such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—actually add to their dangers. Polyester attracts oily pollutants in seawater. Plastic pellets no more than 0.02 inches in diameter can absorb hazardous chemicals (such as polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBS, nonylphenols and derivatives of DDT) onto their surfaces at up to one million times the concentrations in the surrounding water. Since microfibers have a large surface area in relation to their size, there are more spots where chemicals and bacteria can adhere. That means that even minute creatures could ingest them, either by accident or by mistaking them for food. Scientists have already documented the consumption of microplastics by little ocean creatures, such as barnacles, small crustaceans called amphipods and sandworms. That introduces those chemicals into the bottom of the food chain, with unknown health consequences for every animal eating all the way up to the top.
Once eaten, plastic microfibers—unlike other microplastics—become enmeshed in fish gastrointestinal tracts and are stored in tissues and cells. They have been found inside a double-crested cormorant, a fish-eating bird.
Another downside to microplastics is that their size makes them impossible to clean up once they get into the ocean—or any other environment.
Lakes and rivers also feel the effects
Those other environments include our lakes and rivers. Plastic microfibers are even more abundant in those types of waterways than microbeads from shampoo and body washes, which have been banned in seven states. Sherri Mason, a professor of chemistry at the State University of New York at Fredonia, tested effluent from several wastewater-treatment plants and found that 85 percent of the plastic it contained was fibers, whereas beads and other fragments only made up 13 percent.
On January 9, 2015, an article in The New York Times stated that about 12 percent of the plastic litter collected from southern Lake Michigan in 2013 was from microfibers. There’s also a chance that fibers are in drinking water piped from the lakes. And in an initial sampling around Bozeman, a high level of microplastics along the Gallatin River was discovered. The watershed begins in Yellowstone National Park and is a headwater for the Missouri River.
Is going natural the answer?
Some say that the answer is to go back to natural fibers, such as bamboo, cotton, hemp, silk and wool. All derive from renewable sources, are intrinsically biodegradable and their fibers would not attract oily chemicals out of seawater.
But conventionally gown cotton, for instance, relies heavily on fertilizers and pesticides, requires significantly more water to produce than synthetics and utilizes far more land. Even goose down has its drawbacks.
Yvon Chouinard, founder of the outdoor gear manufacturer Patagonia, likes to advance the idea that there’s no such thing as sustainability. We must accept the fact that making apparel does harm the environment. All consumer products have environmental impacts, and those repercussions have to be viewed across an article’s entire life cycle. So far, there is no miracle fiber that is both high performance and environmentally benign at the same time.
I do know that now, as fall and winter approach in Wisconsin where I live, it’s going to get harder and harder to give up my fleece.
Do you think that it’s possible to have clothing made in a truly sustainable way? Does the convenience, performance and use of recycled plastic make synthetic fleece worth the impact it makes on the environment?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,
Can you suggest the best way to dispose of fleece items? I have a few hundred yards left of fleece from a small business that I had. I was going to sell it but now I don’t know. Again, how does one dispose of it? I have looked through many articles and have found nothing. I hope you will respond.
Recycling fleece at the present time is difficult. I suggest you contact the Council for Textile Recycling: https://www.weardonaterecycle.org/contact.html
If you have ready-made fleece garments, some manufacturers will take them back and recycle them for you. Clothing manufacturer Patagonia has such a program: https://www.patagonia.com/recycling.html
Alternatively, you could contact your local recycling companies to see if they have the means to recycle fleece.
Good luck, and thanks for your question! —C.G.A.
Australia’s Senate is currently looking into the problem of marine plastic pollution. We are preparing a submission on behalf of the Law Council of Australia and will include these recommendations. Any more suggestions?
For heavens sakes. Isn’t it awful. The apparently innocent and popular fleece turns out to be evil. Yes Sarah Waddell great ideas on public policy and consumer awareness campaigns. Where do we start?
Sarah, I agree with your lobbying idea. If we start now, it will take root in the near future.
Great article. What are the public policy implications? Should we be lobbying for compulsory warnings on clothing labels about the potential environmental impact of fleece so that people know what they are buying? More publicly funded research into how to prevent microfibers moving away from wastewater disposal sites? Also public awareness campaigns? What else?
A thought provoking and interesting article. From my perspective Yvon Chouinard identified a critical issue. All of the various fibers in one way or another create problems. Even wool – in New Zealand when sheep farming (for wool and meat) was highly profitable (1960/70) there were subsidies given out by the then Government to clear indigenous forest, often on steep highly erodible country to increase the amount of pasture for sheep…which is hardly sustainable behavior.
What all this tells me is we should at very least reduce our use of these fibers by getting the most we can out of the clothing we have and avoiding getting rid of old jackets etc just because they are a bit worn or perceived as being no longer fashionable.
I never liked fleece and now I know why. Great article for us all to pay attention.
I now think about this every time I wash my fleece clothes — can we add screens to our washing machines?
I will now also look for other recycled goods which have an expected end-of-life after their most recent cycle and make a determination as to whether those products are “worth it”. Or, do they represent the same issue as the original material, simply delayed in their entry to the environment as uncontrolled waste? In general, I’m trying to get away from man-made materials, in that many consequences of using them are unforeseen, such as this one. (Link to any nano-particle discussion here.) Of course, eschewing man-made materials is a tough thing to do but, at least, switching cold-weather clothing material is an easy area to tackle, something we can all do with relatively little sacrifice. Thanks for the heads-up, Candice.
It’s interesting, and sad, that these tiny fibers have an additive effect in how they bind with toxins in our water to become little kill pills… But I wonder if there is any opportunity in that? Could there be a way to capture these fibers in the treatment process, or even before that in our laundry machines, and harness their toxic absorption properties to make our wastewater more clean?
Right now, most washing machines don’t have filters to trap minuscule microfibers, nor do sewage plants that are responsible for removing contaminants. But the good news is that a company called UpGyres (https://upgyres.org) is working to develop a lint filter for washing machines fine enough to catch synthetic microfibers. And, in another interesting twist (and “opportunity,” as you mention!), UpGyres is exploring ways to upcycle synthetic lint into clothing and other accessories. Thanks for your question. —C.G.A.
I think that it is obvious that improvements are required in our treatment of wastewater to prevent the transfer of these micro fibers & beads or “the next great thing” into our water. The reusing of plastic in a useful item with long life seems like a good idea until reading this article. Thanks for posting it. Maybe with crowd sourcing, a good solution can be arranged.
How many charities, some with environmental aims, give their volunteers fleece jackets or sell them to supporters? I’ll check my fleeces and once worn out I’ll seek advice as how best to dispose of them. In the meantime I’ll check the charity ones I have and, if applicable, inform the charities concerned of the problem.
This poses a not so new but somehow overlooked (and always very relevant) question; we’ve been focusing so much in “greening” our consumption that we keep forgetting that it is also essential to “decrease” our consumption. It’s like going back in time a couple of decades and remember that the first of the “3 Rs” is actually “Reducing”.
Sigh… Fleece used to seem like a good thing, to use up all some of that plastic people use in the bottles they insist on buying. Kinda like fast breeder reactors consuming nuclear waste from earlier generations of reactors. And fleece meant we didn’t have to support sheep “farmers” who insist on killing wolves even though they are copiously compensated for their losses to predators (while disregarding the most important threats to their free-range sheep and farming economies). Guess the only solution is to do away with humans. At least my ecological foot-print dies with me, and will not be perpetuated through descendants.
I wonder if all the “fleece” articles available now are made this way. There is a wide variety of these available now, from blankets to pajamas. If so, it is not just a matter of switching to natural materials for jackets. And, what should people do with all this fleece? Would it be safe to send to the landfill?
So is it back to good old wool? But what insecticides are being used in larger scale commercial production to protect the wool yarn from moths etc? (But at least it’s not aldrin or dieldrin now within the EU.) When I produced sheep fleece some years ago, even under organic certification, there were still occasions when insecticide treatments were needed on the animals, even in the most extensive low input system (semi-wild.)
Organic cotton remains an option, although more expensive, but worth paying for if we can afford it. As I understand it, conventional cotton production in places like Mali, in West Africa, does not necessarily use pesticides. But it’s pretty impossble to distinguish cotton produced with or without heavy chemical inputs, without some robust certifcation process. Let alone the water needed.
So what are the cradle-to-grave consequences of bamboo fabrics??
I must admit that I did not see this coming though, of course, I should have, per Mark’s comment. Shame on me. It’s frustrating that the act of recycling, a seemingly green practice, only causes issues on a subsequent “cycle” of man-made material, but this time with the added issues of an attached “green” branding and, at least in this case, in much smaller and more difficult-to-extract pieces. I will never buy anything with artificial fleece again! Back to nature, which has had a lot longer to figure out the issues than we have.
Thank you, Candice. It makes sense that grinding big plastic into tiny plastic and enticing us to wear it as fashion, does not make the ‘recycled’ plastic go away.
Edin, I think you expressed a collective gasp heard ’round the world. We all love our fleece, don’t we. Thanks for the comment! —C.G.A.
I won’t be looking at my fleece the same way anymore and I certainly won’t be washing them as often.
Changed over to (merino/alpaca) woolen outdoor clothes a while ago, before knowing this, I can recommend it.
You’re way ahead of most of us, Willemijn! —C.G.A.