Did You Know That Old Clothes Spill Plastic Into Our Oceans?


When ecologist Mark Browne found that tiny clothing fibres release most of the plastic in the oceans, major clothing manufacturers ignored his findings. But important new research in australia will soon put them under enormous pressure to react.

When he set out to do a PhD analysing the presence of microplastics in the oceans, British ecologist Mark Browne never imagined he would need to ask the FBI for forensics advice. But what Browne discovered while working on his PhD at Plymouth University a few years ago was so unexpected that his life began to resemble a detective story.

At the outset, the project intrigued Mark, but he didn’t expect to find anything earth-shattering. He trained up small teams of researchers to trot around the world collecting sediment from 18 shorelines on six continents to be studied for their microplastics content. To avoid awkward questions from customs officials about sand-like substances in plastic bags, the teams sent them through the post. For months, little bags arrived at Mark’s laboratory from far-flung locations, including Dubai, Japan, Malapascua Island in the Philippines, Korpo Island in Finland, the Western Cape of South Africa, the Azores and Mozambique.

The presumption was that the highest concentration of microplastics would come from packaging and the tiny beads found in cleaning products. But the research – published in the prestigious journal Science – showed that more than 80% of the plastic in the samples came from clothing microfibres, such as nylon and acrylic. “This was an astonishing result. There were often brightly coloured fibres and higher concentrations in densely populated areas, especially near sewage outflows, which meant they were coming from us,” Mark said.

At this point, Mark Browne realised he could have stumbled onto something big. Wanting to proceed with caution, he called both the FBI and the British Metropolitan Police for advice on the forensic analysis of substances. The FBI responded by describing the methods they use to scrutinise materials at crime scenes. “We emulated their technique of shining infrared beams onto a substance. It made the micofibres in the waste vibrate at particular frequencies. An instrument picked that up and matched the ‘fingerprint’ of each microfibre to a database of materials,” said Mark.

The FBI also advised the scientists how to treat their lab environment like a crime scene to avoid contaminating the samples. “They made suggestions about what clothing to wear, how to sample downwind and how to keep the lab spotlessly clean to avoid dust contamination. As a marine biologist, it was a rare opportunity to hear their views,” Mark said.

Shocking discovery

Even at this point, Mark’s team was not certain that clothing was the major source of the microfibres. Another possibility was fishing ropes. But they eliminated that theory by cross-referencing their finds with the large database of fibres kept by Switzerland’s Oerlikon Manmade Fibers. There was no doubt that the vast majority came from the global textiles industry. “This was a completely new and shocking discovery,” said Mark. “Everyone had previously thought that packaging and microbeads were the biggest problems we face, but we consistently found polyester, acrylic, rayon and polyamide.”

Further experiments on the British coastline confirmed the findings. In 2011, Browne collected samples at two sub-tidal areas – Rame Head, in Cornwall, and near the River Tyne, in North East England. He found that where sewage had been deposited nearby, there was 250% more microplastic than in areas where it had not been dumped. Next, he sampled sewage effluent from two British treatment plants and discovered the same polymers and microfibres as in the ocean samples.

The next question to answer in Mark’s personal detective story was how the microfibres were finding their way in such large quantities into the oceans.

Experiments with washing machines on polyester revealed that clothes were shedding microfibres in large quantities. “We analysed fleeces made from recycled materials and they lost about 2,000 fibres per wash,” he said. “Similar results were found for blankets and shirts. We were sure we had discovered the passage from washing machines into the oceans via effluent, or storm waters if the sludge from sewage farms has been dumped onto farmland.”

Mark Browne was disconcerted by the results. He worried that the unregulated clothing manufacturers were introducing potentially toxic plastic materials into the environment that could then find its way from the oceans into the human food chain via their ingestion by marine animals. Mark’s work with shellfish has shown that once ingested by animals, microplastic can be stored by tissues and cells.

Mark desperately wanted to do more research into which fibres were dangerous and which were benign, but that meant begging money and materials from the clothing manufacturers. He set up the worldwide ‘Benign by Design’ collective of scientists and academics to help with the research. The only problem was the manufacturers weren’t interested. Patagonia, despite promoting itself as an environmentally friendly brand, dismissed his findings as too preliminary to justify more work. Nike and Polartec also refused to help. The major washing machine manufacturers, such as Siemens and LG, were just as reluctant. Mark did receive a small £10,000 grant from clothing manufacturer Eileen Fisher, but he needed more help from the clothing giants to make progress.

“They were under no obligation because plastics are deemed to be non-toxic and benign. Policy-makers still classify plastic as an inert substance on the same level as grass clippings,” he said.“Normally,whenyouhaveapollutantthatisbio-cumulative and toxic you have environmental laws applied to it so it’s either cleaned up, or legal steps are taken to shut off the sources. Without the laws, there’s no incentive for the manufacturers to get involved. For a long time, I was stuck in a Catch 22 situation.”

The assumption that plastics are all benign is a dangerous one when you consider the quantities being pumped into the environment, Mark argues. Global production of plastic is 380,000 million tonnes a year, but 150 million tonnes of this amount is unaccounted for. “It simply goes missing into the environment, which means we will have another 33 billion tonnes of potentially toxic plastic on the planet by 2050,” he said.

Reasons for optimism

Mark was beginning to despair, but in the past two years, he has become far more optimistic that answers can be found. Two possible solutions have emerged unexpectedly. One has come in the form of a large research grant to fund more advanced experiments in Australia.

The second reason for Mark’s renewed faith was his discovery about a year ago of a Canadian amateur inventor called Blair Jollimore. As luck would have it, Jollimore has created a filter that removes microfibres from washing machines. The former aeronautics engineer first made his filter 14 years ago for use at his home in Nova Scotia after his septic tank backed up and flooded his home with sewage.

Realising the problem was caused by lint from the washing machine blocking the outflow pipe, Jollimore modified a water filter and added a stainless steel screen. It worked a treat and all of a sudden he found himself selling dozens to neighbours with similar problems. A home business was born and Jollimore has sold more than 2,000 filters to date. Requests have come in from Australia, the UK and every state in the US. “We know they filter out most of the microfibres, so they are a good solution, but we don’t know exactly how efficient they are so we need more research,” said Mark.

The commercial potential of the filters, Mark believes, would soar if there were greater consumer awareness of the dangers of microfibres. And that requires well-publicised research to put pressure on regulators and manufacturers. This looked a distant goal a few months ago after years of frustration trying to get more funds. But then in October 2014, Browne was rewarded for his persistence when the Australian Research Council granted his team AUD500,000 (£250,000) for more research. A more hopeful Browne recently joined colleagues at the University of NewSouthWalesandtheUniversityofSydneytoconductstudies of microfibres found on the Australian coastline near major cities.

“I expect the new research to have a big influence,” he said. “When we produce our findings about what the microfibres are doing to the food chain, the clothing companies will be in a difficult situation if it’s their particular products that are causing problems. Consumers will be asking difficult questions about how engaged the industry has been in finding solutions, I expect there to be a lot of annoyed consumers if they have marketed themselves as sustainable.”

Browne’s team will be using more advanced forensic techniques than in his previous experiments and they have access to a much bigger library of polymers. “We’ll be able to remove what limited uncertainty we have about whether a product is causing a problem and we will start honing in on which ones are causing the issues,” he said.

Mark is also optimistic that the three-year Australian project will supply the evidence demanded by policy-makers. “We’re doing what they’ve been asking for, which is a risk assessment. That means measuring which organisms are exposed to the microfibres. The biggest problem to date has been identifying bits of plastic in tissue, but we now think we’ve cracked it,” he said.

The team will look at the exposure to the fibres at each link in the chain. “We’ll be looking at animals lower down the chain, such as mussels, as well as animals higher up, including predatory snails, fish and crustaceans. We’re trying to establish which plastics are the worst offenders for health and which are the more benign types.”

Mark would like one day to see the clothing industry subjected to the same scientific rigour as the medical industry when it tests plastic devices for human use. “In medicine they havesortedthisouttremendouslywell,”hesaid.“Whenanitem is put into a human, it’s tested extensively. That’s perfect. Similarly, if you buy a house, you get an engineer to check if it’s structurally sound. There’s no debate. So if we get the policies equal in the clothing industry, the manufacturers will be forced to pay for research into the fibres and more of the mainstream media will start to cover these issues.”

Please share your experiences and views in the comment section.

Photo Credit: Yosuke Shimizu from flickr