Fall in New England rarely disappoints. The foliage brings many leaf peepers into our neck of the woods to catch a glimpse of the bright and iconic colors. Along with the change in seasons comes a chill in the air, making sure we don’t forget that winter isn’t far behind. This time of year, many bundle up our kids in warm fleece.
Fleece is a common material, used to make jackets, blankets, hats, gloves and other winter gear. It stands out as one of the most popular and comfortable garment fabrics. Chances are you have something made from fleece in your own stash of winter belongings. Those fleece garments are made from post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic soda bottles and other discarded plastic.
Over the past few years, we’ve heard about the microplastics problem plaguing our planet. Microplastics are pieces of plastic debris that are less than five millimeters in length (about the size of a sesame seed). Microplastic waste also includes microfibers which are “fine filaments made of petroleum-based materials such as polyester and nylon that are woven together into fabrics.” Synthetic clothing including fleece is a major contributor to the growing problem of microplastics.
A study back in 2011 found that microfibers represented 85% of human-made plastic pollution on shorelines around the world and found that much of the plastic pollution was coming from washing our clothes. Washing clothing in a machine releases microfibers into waste water. While some microfibers are captured as sewage by the filter systems in treatment plants, a fair amount (due to their small size) get past the filtration system and enter our waterways. This causes extensive plastic pollution and places marine life at risk.
Another report highlights the extreme and growing problem with plastic pollution stating that “in 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the sea”.
In response to these findings the outerwear company, Patagonia, partnered with The University of California Santa Barbara to commission a study to determine how many microfibers were shed from their well-known fleece jackets. The results were shocking.
“When synthetic jackets are washed, on average 1.7 grams of microfibers are released from the washing machine. These microfibers then travel to your local wastewater treatment plant, where up to 40% of them enter into rivers, lakes, and oceans.”
Synthetic microfibers are particularly dangerous because fish and other marine life often mistake them for food. Once eaten they can harm their digestive tract and interfere with their consumption of real food. Consumption of microfibers can also pass up the food chain to larger animals, including humans.
The Patagonia study also found:
- Brand and quality matters: in the study, a low-quality, generic brand fleece shed approximately 170 percent more over the course of its lifespan than Patagonia’s high-quality products.
- Jackets washed in top-load washers shed more than five times as many microfibers than in front-loaders.
- Fabric construction is likely impacting the amount of shedding.
A more recent study found each cycle of a washing machine could release more than 700,000 microscopic plastic fibers into the environment.
Patagonia has acknowledged that more research is needed before we understand the true impact of microfibers on the environment, marine life, and our waterways.
Here are a few things we can do to right now to help reduce the amount of microfiber pollution in our rivers, lakes, and oceans.
- Don’t wash your fleece as frequently.
- Look for quality materials. Buy high-quality, durable synthetic clothing.
- Use a front loader washing machine.
- Educate others about the problem of plastic debris in our waterways.
- Buy clothing on an as-needed basis and don’t wash after every use.