Scientists and manufacturers are looking for ways to keep synthetic microfibers from getting into the environment in the first place
Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a three-part series on the emerging threat of microfiber pollution. In part one we investigated where microfibers come from and where they are found in the environment. In part two we explored the implications for the environment and human health.
In 2013, ecologist Mark Anthony Browne presented the results of some unsettling research to leaders from a handful of major apparel brands, including Nike, Polartec (a major supplier of polyester fleece) and Patagonia. Browne had published a reportthat implicated synthetic apparel as a possible source of microplastic pollution. Browne wanted the companies to fund research to evaluate how and why apparel sheds fibers, in order to mitigate the action, perhaps by redesigning textile processing or sourcing different material. They all declined except for clothier Eileen Fisher, which provided Browne with a small seed grant. The others said it was too early. They wanted a larger scientific consensus that their products were sources of plastic pollution.
In the years since Browne first approached the apparel industry, numerous additional studies have shown that synthetic microfibers shed by clothing and other manufactured products are being ingested by fish and shellfish, and can be found in food, drinks, and even air. It’s still unclear whether microfibers pose a real threat to the health of humans or other living things. Yet, under the specter that they might, academic, nonprofit and apparel industry scientists have started to look at ways to stem the flow of microfibers into the environment.