Synthetic fibers and our oceans

18 02 2012

First we heard about the world’s biggest garbage dump – made up of the detritus of our time: plastic bottles, plastic bags, DVD cases  – floating in our ocean. About 44 percent of all seabirds eat plastic, apparently by mistake, sometimes with fatal effects. And many marine species are affected by plastic garbage—animals are known to swallow plastic bags, which resemble jellyfish in mid-ocean, for example—according to a 2008 study in the journal Environmental Research by oceanographer and chemist Charles Moore, of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation.[1]

Just as soon as we’ve had time to digest this news, we discover that the more improbable impact to the oceans from plastic comes from microscopic particles of plastic:   In fact, the mass of plastic the size of Texas often said to exist in the North Pacific is a myth, according to filmmaker Craig Leeson, who is producing a documentary (backed by David Attenborough and the UK-based Plastic Oceans Foundation)  on the spread of plastics in our oceans.   Instead, particles of plastic lurk in our oceans invisibly, in seemingly clear water.

“If you trawl for it with these special nets that they’ve developed, you come back with this glutinous mass — it’s microplastics that are in the water along with the plankton,” he said. “The problem is that it’s being mistaken for food and being eaten by plankton eaters, who are then eaten by bigger fish, and so it goes on, and it ends up on our dinner tables.”[2]

Charles Moore  has found that in some areas, plastic outweighs zooplankton – the ocean’s food base.[3]

It’s not just in the water:  Dr. Mark Browne, University College Dublin, and several colleagues gathered sand samples from 18 beaches on six continents for analysis. It turns out that every beach tested contained microplastics  (particles about the size of a piece of long grain of rice or smaller).  Charles Moore carries a bag of sand from a beach in Hawaii which he had analyzed – and found that it was 90% plastic.

Studies show that this contamination is getting worse – and link it with health conditions in humans including cancer, diabetes and immune disruption.

So how does this tie into our blog topic of textile issues?

It turns out that 80% of the microplastic found in the samples which the scientists collected on the beaches was fibrous:  polyester, acrylic and polyamides (nylon) fibers.  And the scientists are pretty sure the fibers come from fabric.

According to Science:  “Not a single beach was free of the colorful synthetic lint. Each cup of sand contained at least two fibers and as many as 31. The most contaminated samples came from areas with the highest population density, suggesting cities were an important source of the lint.”[4]

In order to test their idea that sewer discharges were the source of these the plastic discharges, the team worked with a local authority in New South Wales, Australia, and found that their suspicions were correct.  Sewage treatment does not remove the fibers.  But where do the fibers enter the waste stream?

Dr Browne and his colleagueProfessor Richard Thompson from the University of Plymouth carried out a number of experiments to see what fibers were contained in the water discharge from washing machines.

According to a study published in September’s Environmental Science and Technology [5], nearly 2,000 polyester fibers can shake loose from a single piece of clothing in the wash.

“It may not sound like an awful lot, but if that is from a single item from a single wash, it shows how things can build up.” [6]

“It suggests to us that a large proportion of the fibres we were finding in the environment, in the strongest evidence yet, was derived from sewerage as a consequence from washing clothes.”

On Cyber Monday last year, outdoor retailer Patagonia took out a full-page ad in The New York Times asking readers to “buy less and to reflect before you spend a dime.” Beside a photo of their iconic R2® fleece jacket, the headline read: “Don’t Buy This Jacket.”

We fully support Patagonia’s message that we should all pause before consuming anything – our consumption patterns are, after all, what got us into this mess.  “But there might be another reason to take a pass on that jacket besides Patagonia’s confession that the process of creating the R2® Jacket leaves behind “two-thirds of its weight in waste” on its way to their Reno warehouse — it turns out that tossing the jacket in the washer causes it to leave behind something else entirely — thousands of tiny plastic threads.” [7]


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5 responses

18 02 2012
Bjorn

Ugh, just when I was getting excited about using recycled polyester to lessen wrinkles😦

19 02 2012
eremophila

Reblogged this on Eremophila’s Musings and commented:
Please take time to read this, and contemplate changes you can make.

20 02 2012
Laurie Lemmlie-Leung

This is a lot of good though distrubing information. But I am suprised to hear that Craig Leeson says the mass of plastic in the North Pacific is a myth! I have read so much about it, gone to lectures by people who have been there researching it, I’d like to know more about why he says it is a myth.

For people who want to dispense with plastic, this blog from Rodale has some good advice. http://voices.rodale.com/go-plastic-free-without-going-crazy/2012/02/17/

20 02 2012
oecotextiles

Hi Laurie: I don’t think he disputes that there is a lot of plastic in the oceans – his use of the word “myth” is probably a bad choice. According to Dawn.com, “The 250 million tonnes of plastic we discard each year make their way for thousands of miles around the oceans, and Leeson’s team – many of whom have backgrounds in the BBC’s Natural History Unit – are determined to document this in spectacular fashion.
But beyond this, their goal is to show that the environmental damage is systemic, going far beyond a series of water-borne trash heaps.” I think he’s trying to draw attention to the microplastic in the oceans, so much so that there is a “gelatinous mass” in seemingly clear water. So the dreadful problem becomes “out of sight” and therefore out of mind. Another provocateur.

Thanks for the Rodale site!

21 02 2012
Kyle Tsai

It’s improbable impact to the oceans from plastic comes from microscopic particles of plastic. I have done textile material 20 years for sports clothing. Most of clothing are made by synthetic fibes (EX: nylon and polyester).So I fully support Patagonia’s message too.

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