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article imageCozy clothes and yoga pants — Key source of ocean pollution

By Karen Graham     Mar 15, 2017 in Science
Key Largo - Yoga pants, Patagonia's cozy jackets, sweat-wicking athletic wear and other types of comfortable clothing all have one thing in common — these items are emerging as a major source of pollution in our waterways, lakes and oceans.
A two-year study of microscopic plastics in the waters from South Texas to the Florida Keys has been launched by the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium with funding from the Gulf of Mexico Alliance, according to the Associated Press.
The project will rely partly on volunteers already participating in coastal cleanup efforts. It will also expand on the year's worth of data collected by the State of Florida that found a predominance of microfibers, shreds of plastic even smaller than microbeads flowing down bathroom and kitchen drains.
In the Florida state study, conducted from September 2015 to August 2016, samples of water were collected from 256 sites in the Florida peninsula. Microfibers made up 82 percent of the plastic pollution found. Of the 256 samples collected, at least 89 percent had plastics.
Many waterways have been polluted by microbeads.
Many waterways have been polluted by microbeads.
Angelika Lindner via wikimedia
The study of microfibers, plastic materials shed from garments made of synthetic fibers such as nylon, acrylics, and polyesters, is still in its infancy. Microfibers are even smaller than so-called microbeads, and research has shown these tiny bits of plastic are ending up in the ocean's food chain.
In November 2016, Digital Journal reported on a two-year study launched by the UK government on the potential impact of microplastics in shellfish and other marine animals. But an even bigger part of the study will focus on a wider review of the effects of microfiber pollution on human health.
The Gulf Coast study
Caitlin Wessel, regional coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Debris Program says, "There hasn't been a lot of baseline study covering microplastics, and the studies that have been done haven't been as wide-reaching."
Microplastic fibre inside sea pen polyp.
Microplastic fibre inside sea pen polyp.
Michelle Taylor/Nature
"We're hoping to use the data as a baseline but also find sources of microplastics and find out what types of microplastics are the biggest issue in the Gulf," she adds. And while she doesn't think the Gulf of Mexico will end up looking like a garbage dump, she is still concerned over the minuscule pieces of plastic being ingested by marine life. We just don't know what the full impact will be in the future.
Study could have an impact on a number of industries
Patagonia, a leading manufacturer of clothing that it advertises as being good for the environment, has become pro-active in its approach to the microfiber pollution problem. The company initiated two research projects, with one, published in June 2016 by researchers at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Fibers captured on a 20 micron filter. A micron (or micrometer) equals one millionth of a meter (a c...
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.
Patagonia
A second study, which is ongoing, is being conducted by scientists at North Carolina State University with the goals of better understanding characteristics in fibers and fabrics that lead to microfiber release and developing a rapid test method to assess the potential of fabrics to shed during laundering.
As for the impact research into microfibers may have on some industries, the first to come to mind would be manufacturers of washing machines. It would be a simple fix to create a better filter, one that would catch tiny pieces of plastic fiber. It is interesting to note that research has found that front-loading washers create five-times less microfiber shedding than top-loading machines.
The garment industry is another target, but one that should follow in the steps of Patagonia. While public awareness and better consumer education will go a long way in making people aware of the problem, there needs to be more research into fabrics that are more environmentally friendly.
More about microplastics, ocean pollution, microfibers, nylon, Polyester
 
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