The surprising and largely ignored evidence linking synthetic clothing to widespread microplastic contamination.
by David Hanson | photograph Michael Hanson
Craig Weiland was careful not to touch his wicking T-shirt to the water sample he scooped into a one-liter Coke bottle from Jemrod Creek, just below a Mount Olympus, Washington, snowfield. Then he carried the bottle 18 miles out of the wilderness and shipped it to a lab in Maine, where scientists discovered eight tiny plastic fragments in the crystalline water.
Every time you wash and dry your synthetic layer, you send thousands of chemical-laced microfibers into the water or the air. Which raises a question. Your beloved Muppet-fur fleece is shedding, but where do all the threads go?
Like microbeads—those tiny polyethylene spheres used as exfoliates in soaps and cosmetics—synthetic microfibers accumulate in global waterways. Following creeks to water treatment plants and eventually major rivers, they join other, larger plastics en route to their holy promised land in Earth’s abundant ocean and freshwater gyres.
“We’re living in the Plasticene Age,” says Abby Barrows, a researcher at Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC) and the recipient of Weiland’s Mount Olympus sample. To get that Coke bottle full of water, ASC—a Montana-based nonprofit that outsources data collection to outdoors people like Weiland—partnered with Maine’s Marine & Environmental Research Institute (MERI).
And what of those eight microfibers in the sample? “We know the fibers are in our waterways,” says Barrows, “but we don’t yet know what they’re doing.” Microplastics have been shown to leach toxins into animals that ingest them and microfibers could be doing the same. And, she says, nearly every hiker, skier, alpinist, and Joe Citizen who washes a fleece is contributing to the problem. “I don’t want to point my finger at the outdoor industry,” she adds, “but they do rely heavily on synthetics.”
Another leading researcher is more blunt. Dr. Mark Browne, a senior research associate at the Australian Research Council, published a 2011 paper proving that a single synthetic clothing article in a washing machine flushes over 1,900 microfibers—per wash!
Following his study, Patagonia flirted with a three-year partnership with Browne, to study its fibers. But “to do it right would have taken $500,000, minimum,” says Browne. “Patagonia wanted it done for a few thousand.”
Since then, the Outdoor Industry Association’s Sustainability Work Group has added microfibers to its list of supply chain suspects. Patagonia, for its part, has contributed $180,000 in grants to groups working on ocean plastics issues, including a “Pataplast” fiber analysis project with a group of five grad students at UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. The solution requires particular scientific understanding, which brings us to the status quo: The industry is awaiting more evidence, while Browne, Barrows, and others claw for the funding to provide it.
For now, consumers can help curb the problem, choosing ethically sourced wool and down instead of petrochemicals. Still, it’s tough to get through a full winter without donning a synthetic fleece. Hopefully, as word spreads, outdoor enthusiasts will demand cleaner goods, and “dirty” synthetic layers will go the way of the microbeads—another fleeting industrial innovation, shunned and left to settle into a geological layer of the Plasticene.
From the Early Winter 2015 issue.