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Jan Lee headshot

From Spin to Sea: Polyester Microfibers Clog Our Beaches

By Jan Lee

It's been said that there's a downside to everything, and nowhere can you find a better example of that fact than in our clothes. We've mastered the art of doing more with less by recycling materials into duds that years ago were never thought of as wearable. Plastic bottles are the best example of this new recycling trend that has admittedly helped to keep millions of bottles out of the landfill.

But the latest research concerning the debris washing up on our shores suggests cutting down on pollution from plastics may not be that simple. Thanks to ecologist Mark Browne, companies that use plastics like polyester in clothing are becoming aware that their ingenuity doesn't necessarily ensure that plastic microfibers won't end up polluting another part of the environment - the ocean, for example.

According to Browne, who stumbled upon the problem on the shoreline, the real danger of marine plastic pollution is that it has the potential to infiltrate a broad spectrum of the marine environment. It pollutes the shores, but it's also ingested by fish and other organisms that may not be able to avoid consuming or breathing in the tiny fibers that are often less than 5 millimeters in size. And -- you guessed it -- it is then carried into our food chain.

Browne's findings were detailed in a 2011 paper published in the Environmental Science and Technology Journal and suggested that "a large proportion of microplastic fibers found in the marine environment may be derived from sewage as a consequence of washing of clothes." The real problem, Browne and his colleagues noted, is that as the use of synthetic textiles increases, "contamination of habitats and animals by microplastic is likely to increase."

Browne's efforts to capture the attention of clothing manufacturers that rely on synthetic materials fell on deaf ears. Browne said he approached Patagonia and Polartec, but said he received less than enthusiastic support in joining him in his research, which he admitted requires financial support. What support he did receive (from clothing company Eileen Fisher), hasn't been enough to cover the costs of the project.

The implications of this finding are pretty staggering, and what is troubling is that the news has been out there for several years, with little resolve. Publications like Treehugger and BBC covered it in the past, and it's now resurfacing in the news. According to the Guardian (and reprinted, in this case, by Grist), Patagonia has awarded grants to organizations that research this and similar issues, but says it refrains from investing directly in research endeavors. Polartec, at least at the time of Grist's article, wasn't yet sold on investing in Browne's program, Benign by Design, until it was known whether the microfibers were actually due to the kinds of materials they used in their jackets and clothes.

The problem, however, still exists, and true to Browne's predictions, it is now pervasive on the shorelines of the world's largest oceans.

The good news is that three years later, Browne's efforts are finally receiving some traction from big media. The dialogue about how to curb the problem is finally starting. As with so many things these days: It seems to be a pressing issue whose discovery is borne not out of the industries that have helped to shape and improve the reduction of pollution, but the scientists who often must lobby for funds and megaphone attention to get their warnings across. It must be a lonely job at times, knowing the message will eventually be heard, albeit later than hoped.

 Image credit: Hillary Daniels

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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