The issue of microfibres suddenly has the textiles apparel fashion industry in its throes. The subject itself, compared to pesticide use and efficient discharge, is relatively new, Subir Ghosh writes.

In the fashion industry, they warn you, every new day brings in a new set of problems/challenges. Some of these are new in nature, others are newly-discovered, so to speak. One of the latest, arguably the biggest of them all, is one that of microfibre contamination. The subject had been known for a while, but it is only now that the magnitude of the issue has become a topic of debate and, yes, a major concern.

The textiles-apparel-fashion industry has had the dubious honour of being the biggest polluter of the planet after oil, but much of these related to the indiscriminate use of dyes and pesticides, the reckless release of toxic effluents and the uncontrolled post-consumer piling up of textile waste. It has been only in the last one decade or so that a number of new laws have come into force the world over and new regulations put in place, and even as the industry has been struggling to shrug off the tag of being unfair in its social practices and starting to put a circular economy in place there comes a topic that had escaped scrutiny altogether-unmitigated contamination of what sustains life itself on the planet: the oceans.

The subject has been snowballing for the last one year, ever since photographer Justin Hofman's heart-wrenching image of a seahorse swimming with a discarded cotton swab added a new dimension to the issue of pollution in our oceans. It was one of those images that haunts you forever. It was in this backdrop came the finding in late July that only one-eighth of the world's oceans remain free of human impact. And given that two-thirds of the planet are seas and oceans, one cannot even begin to fathom how deep the rot lies, how widespread is the contamination wreaked by humans.

The reasons are innumerable-from rampant and unsustainable fishing to disposal of unfiltered waste into the waters by the shipping industry and from release of all kinds of wastes through the rivers into the seas to the havoc that beach tourism is wreaking on the oceans. Much of the marine pollution can be seen-either in the form of plastic materials extracted from dead whales that wash up ashore to the vast islands of plastics that stay afloat in mid-seas. And yet, there were many that invariably escaped the eye-microplastics. Much of these microplastics are microfibres-from textiles and apparel.

The blame game is afoot, and science is only beginning to lay things bare. Fingers are being pointed at all directions, and the textiles-apparel-fashion industry finds itself in the heart of another controversy. While it is easy to pass on the buck, in a circular economy, solutions would need to start at the source.


The Early Warnings

Microplastics defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are plastic fragments that are 5mm or smaller, and are today found in all five major ocean gyres. These move through sewage treatment plants, and unlike natural fibres, such as cotton or wool, synthetic fibres do not biodegrade, and instead bind with molecules of harmful chemical pollutants found in wastewater, such as pesticides or flame retardants. Plankton and other small organisms ingest these microfibres, which subsequently make their way up the food chain and end up in what we eat.

This ought to be common knowledge, but the extent of the problem was first indicated only in 2004 when a team of researchers led by Richard Thompson from the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom started documenting and thereby also quantifying the occurrence of microplastics in the marine environment. They collected sediments from 20 coastal sites, and also took surface water samples and compared the microfibre contents from samples taken decades earlier. Thompson and his team found an increase in fibrous synthetic material over time that corresponded with the uptick in synthetic fibre production since the 1970s." The researchers concurred that every square kilometre of deep ocean contained about four billion plastic fibres, and these were four times more abundant in the deep sea than in surface and coastal waters. The findings were published in Science.

Thompson's work was taken forward by one of his graduate students, Mark Anthony Browne. He wanted to find out more about the cases, and went on to conduct a study that looked both at where fibres were found and a possible source of these microfibres in coastal areas. Browne did not confine himself to a geographical area-he collected beach sediment samples from around the world, and washed polyester apparel to quantify how many fibres those items shed into laundry wastewater.

In 2011, his findings were published in Environmental Science and Technology. The samples that were taken near wastewater disposal sites had 250 per cent more microplastic than those from reference sites, and the fibres found in those samples were mostly polymers often used in synthetic apparel. This indicated that fibres were in all likelihood coming from wastewater treatment plants and being released with treated effluent straight into rivers, lakes or oceans. There was another disturbing quantification: a single polyester fleece jacket shed as many as 1,900 microfibres each time it was washed.

Browne and six others, who included Thompson, wrote in the introduction to the paper:

Here, we show that microplastic contaminates the shorelines at 18 sites worldwide representing six continents from the poles to the equator, with more material in densely populated areas, but no clear relationship between the abundance of miocroplastics and the mean size-distribution of natural particulates. An important source of microplastic appears to be through sewage contaminated by fibres from washing clothes. Forensic evaluation of microplastic from sediments showed that the proportions of polyester and acrylic fibres used in clothing resembled those found in habitats that receive sewage-discharges and sewage-effluent itself. Experiments sampling wastewater from domestic washing machines demonstrated that a single garment can produce >1,900 fibres per wash. This suggests that a large proportion of microplastic fibres found in the marine environment may be derived from sewage as a consequence of washing of clothes. As the human population grows and people use more synthetic textiles, contamination of habitats and animals by microplastic is likely to increase.

The research studies led by Thompson and Browne were landmark and are referred to by all working on the issue of microplastics and microfibres. Every subsequent study has built on theirs.

Piling Evidence

The body of evidence, since, has only been piling up, each more damning than the previous one.

Among those who built on Thompson and Browne's work was the Rozalia Project, an American non-profit working on ocean protection. Some five years later, its members travelled by boat, collecting water samples from the mouth of the Hudson River all the way to where the river meets the Atlantic in Manhattan. They found that microfibre content increased around treatment plants, but cities did not seem to be hotspots. The conclusion: fibres could be entering surface waters from the air and from septic system drainfields in rural areas without municipal sewage systems. Rozalia Project's mission is to clean and protect the ocean and conserve a healthy, thriving marine ecosystem.

Meanwhile, Thompson and a PhD student Imogen Napper found that polyester and acrylic clothing shed thousands of plastic fibres each time those were washed, resulting in plastic pollution down the drain and on to the ocean. An average UK washing load of 6kg of fabric could release 140,000 fibres from polyester-cotton blend, nearly half a million fibres from polyester, more than 700,000 fibres from acrylic. The homepage of the International Marine Litter Research Unit at his university lists a number of studies on the subject that have been carried out by Thompson and members of the unit.

In 2016, researchers from the University of California at Santa Barbara narrowed down on one culprit: fleece jackets. They found that "synthetic fleece jackets release, on average, 1.7 grams of microfibres each wash, with the most shedding caused by older, lower-quality jackets cleaned in top-load washing machines. These microfibres then travel to your local wastewater treatment plant, where up to 40 per cent of them enter into rivers, lakes and oceans." The volume of microfibers released by laundering 100,000 fleece jackets was found to be equivalent to up to 11,900 plastic grocery bags. Yes, that many.

Backed by Patagonia, researchers here continued exploring the subject. Researchers employed filters to capture and quantify fibres from machines used to wash polyester-based garments, and then carried out a series of tests. Their findings: top-loading washers caused more shedding than front loaders; aged jackets shed more than new ones; and high-end jackets shed less than the budget variety they tested. Their findings were also published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

"We found, by our estimates, that around 100,000 of these fibres can be released from a single jacket in each wash," said Niko Hartline, first author on the paper. "Other studies are coming out with larger numbers, so there is a huge range in what people have been finding. But 100,000 was consistent across the jackets that we washed - and that was quite a bit more than what was found previously.

In February 2017, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reported that "tiny plastic particles washed off products such as synthetic clothes and car tyres could contribute up to 30 per cent of the 'plastic soup' polluting the world's oceans and - in many developed countries - are a bigger source of marine plastic pollution than plastic waste, according to a new IUCN report." The report, Primary Microplastics in the Oceans, said about 15-31 per cent of the estimated 9.5 million tonnes of plastic released into the oceans each year could be primary microplastics, almost two-thirds of which come from the washing of synthetic textiles and the abrasion of tyres while driving.

In a study conducted at the University of Exeter, researchers found that when crabs were given food contaminated with microfibres, their behaviour changed. The crabs ate less food, and the growth became stunted. Meanwhile Bruno Tassin, an urban hydrologist at the University of Paris-Est wanted to see if microfibres clouded the atmosphere. To his horror, Tassin found that 3-10 tonnes of microfibres rained out of the air onto the 1,098-square-mile region surrounding Paris, each year.

The evidence against microplastics/microfibres keeps piling up.

Early industry movers

When Richard Thompson had initially approached members of the textiles-apparel-fashion industry, he had found no takers. He was ignored and dismissed as another doomsday prophecist.

But, the rate at which studies and findings were pouring in were much faster than which the industry could grapple with. Yet, there were the few early movers-those who could see it coming.

On November 28, last year, Ellen MacArthur and Stella McCartney co-hosted the launch of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's report A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion's future in London. The report, crafted by the Circular Fibres Initiative, called for the fashion industry to adopt the new vision and create cross industry collaborations to achieve it. The report pointed out that every second the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles was being either landfilled or burned, and warned that by 2050 the fashion industry would have used up a quarter of the world's carbon budget.

Almost in the same breath, the official announcement on the foundation's website, remarked, "As well as being wasteful, the industry is polluting: clothes release half a million tonnes of microfibres into the ocean every year, equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles. Microfibres are likely impossible to clean up and can enter food chains." This ought to have been a clarion call, for among the initiatives partners were H&M, Lenzing, Nike, and the C&A Foundation. What was amazing about the report was that microfibres-which rarely if featured in discussions related to the role of the fashion industry in a circular economy-kept recurring through the 150-page report.

It outlined, "A new textiles economy needs to ensure that the material input is safe and healthy to allow cycling and to avoid negative impacts during the production, use, and after-use phases. This means that substances that are of concern to health or the environment are designed out and no pollutants such as plastic microfibres are inadvertently released into the environment and ocean." It called for a drastic reduction of plastic microfibre release: "New materials and production processes that radically reduce the number of plastic microfibres shed by clothing, alongside technologies that work effectively at scale to capture those that do still shed, are essential for this to be feasible. A better understanding of the causes of microfibre shedding will continue to inform solutions and identify gaps."

The landmark initiative contended, "In a new textiles economy clothes would be designed to last longer, be worn more and be easily rented or resold and recycled, and would not release toxins or pollution. Exploring new materials, pioneering business models, harnessing the power of design, and finding ways to scale better technologies and solutions are all needed to create a new textiles economy." It also put the onus on industry: "By presenting a clear understanding of the challenges faced and the economic opportunities, as well as practical levers for business, innovation and policy action, the New Textiles Economy report is a vital step in an industry-led approach to develop a global textiles system fit for the 21st Century."

But only if the entire industry and all countries as one were to be sold out on the idea.

Not nearly enough

The jury is out on whether the textiles-apparel-fashion industry is doing enough, or whether it is keeping pace with developments and findings. But critics agree that much of the industry is at least on track.

The June 2017 report by Changing Markets, Dirty Fashion: How pollution in the global textiles supply chain is making viscose toxic, had created a flutter. A year later, an update, Dirty Fashion: on track for transformation, noted, "Seven retailers have signed up to Changing Markets' Roadmap towards responsible viscose and modal fibre manufacturing and are calling on their viscose suppliers to move to 'closed-loop' production defined as a system that ensures emission controls and chemical recovery rates. While substantial process has been made in a relatively short time, much now depends on the implementation of these plans. Brands continue to play a key role in this process through engagement with their viscose producers, while civil society also has a role to play by maintaining pressure on the industry to be transparent and accountable across its entire supply chain."

The Changing Markets report had little to do with microfibres, but it did indicate that companies were willing to walk that extra mile to ensure that its stables were cleaned up.

Whether the same can be said of industry on the microfibre issue is difficult to say. Much of the initial response had been one of denial. When Mark Browne had touched base with apparel brands soon after this research, no one was willing to join hands with him. His intention had been clear: ascertain the flow of synthetic fibres from clothing to the washing machine to the ocean. Browne, now with the University of New South Wales, Australia, went on to develop a plan titled Benign by Design, and teamed up with engineers and scientists both from academia as well as the Environmental Protection Agency. As it transpired, only women's clothing brand Eileen Fisher threw their lot with him with a $10,000 grant that supported some of Browne's subsequent research.

Patagonia, since 2015, has been funding research, and is at the forefront. The brand's website has been providing updates on Patagonia's work "to investigate the emerging issue of ocean pollution from tiny fibres, which often originate from synthetic textiles (such as nylon, acrylic or polyester) that are used in products available to consumers around the world." Besides supporting the research at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara, it has partnered with the North Carolina State University to better understand characteristics in fibres and fabrics that lead to microfibre release and develop a rapid test method to assess the potential of fabrics to shed during laundering; this study is still under way. The brand also educates customers, and urges them to wash less and keep using their products instead of discarding them.

But sadly, not every brand is Patagonia, and not everyone urges fashion to go slow.

It is also that no one is making an effort; many are, though not on a scale to change things. In 2014, Dutch fashion label G-Star RAW announced a RAW for the Oceans line. The series of clothing included jeans, jackets, t-shirts and hoodies, all made from plastic debris reclaimed from the ocean. It teamed up with musician Pharrell Williams and his Bionic Yarn project, which makes textile products from reclaimed plastic. Outdoor apparel company United by Blue takes a different line. For every product sold, it removes one pound of trash from the world's oceans and waterways. Till date, the company has removed 1,102,433 pounds of trash. Not much maybe; big brands can do so much more.

Some, in fact, have started on a different footing. In November 2016, Adidas launched running shoes made mostly of discarded plastic collected off the coast of the Maldives. Adidas used plastic retrieved by conservation group Parley for the Oceans during its cleanup expeditions. The material was upcycled into a yarn, which is weaved to create the upper-the part of the shoe that goes over the foot. Around the same time, surfwear company Volcom announced a women's swimsuit line made from 78 per cent recycled nylon materials, including abandoned fishing nets.

These efforts sound good enough, but there's a catch. Unlike plastic debris, microfibres cannot be scooped or dredged off the ocean floor; those need to be stopped at the source.

Take the example of Italian textile mill Pontetorto, which has launched Bio Pile, a fleece that does not release micro plastics. The smooth exterior of the fabric uses 100 per cent recycled polyester for the face and brushed Tencel on the inner side. The performance of the fleece is not lost either.

The way things stand now, such efforts are only a drop in the ocean.

At the Source

The textiles-apparel-fashion industry is not the only one responsible, and clothing is not the only source of microplastics or toxics in the oceans. Many other industries are equally culpable, and the extent of human consumption and irresponsible behaviour in disposing of waste lies at the core of the problem.

All industries and sectors of the economy need to do their bit, and as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation report underlines, it works best if it is an industry-led approach. And going by the same logic, the problem would grow bigger by the day if industry were to come across as laggard or callous.

As many as three moves to bring in legislations related to microfibres in the United States alone have failed to make headway. All of those were opposed tooth and nail by industry.

Meanwhile, suggestions abound. For instance, the Amsterdam-based Plastic Soup Foundation, an ocean conservation project co-funded by the European Union, believes that better quality clothing or fabrics coated with an anti-shed treatment could help matters. Waterless washing machines could be another solution, as being developed by Patagonia-funded American company Tersus Solutions. It has produced a waterless washing machine in which textiles are washed in pressurised carbon dioxide. New filters on home washing machines too could be a solution. But, many of these solutions would not work in most countries. For example, in India, barely 10-12 per cent households use or own washing machines.

Then there are the twin questions of developing new biodegradable fibres and gradually discarding the use of synthetic fibres. Easier said than done, since the industry is heavily dependent on synthetics. In other words, the future of the entire industry would be at stake.

But as John Warner, one of the founders of green chemistry, says, "It took centuries to create the mess. No magic bullet will solve it overnight. It will take time, creativity, and hard work."