New studies indicate that the fibers in our clothes could be poisoning our waterways and food chain on a massive scale. Microfibers – tiny threads shed from fabric – have been found in abundance on shorelines where waste water is released. Researchers are researching the source of these plastic fibers.
In a 2016 study, researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara found that, on average, synthetic fleece jackets release 1.7 grams of microfibers each wash. It also found that older jackets shed almost twice as many fibers as new jackets. The study was funded by outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia, a certified B Corp that also offers grants for environmental work.
“These microfibers then travel to your local wastewater treatment plant, where up to 40% of them enter rivers, lakes and oceans,” according to findings published on the researchers’ website.
Those fibers are bio-accumulating in the fish. Microbeads, recently banned in the US, are a better-known variety of microplastic, but recent studies have found microfibers to be even more pervasive.
In a groundbreaking 2011 paper, Mark Browne, now a senior research associate at the University of New South Wales, Australia, found that microfibers made up 85% of human-made debris on shorelines around the world. That’s a pretty disgusting thought. Simply stated, I don’t want to have eaten fish for 50 years and then say, ‘Oh, whoops.’
Add to that the problems with manufacturing. Nylon manufacturing creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Making polyester uses large amounts of water for cooling, along with lubricants which can become a source of contamination. Both processes are also very energy-hungry. Rayon made from wood pulp seems cool, except that it’s treated with hazardous chemicals such as caustic soda and sulfuric acid.
Cotton would seem to be the easiest answer, except it’s drinking up our water and getting it contaminated. Think about this: half the world’s clothing is cotton, about 20 million tons produced annually. It can take more than 5283 gallons of water to make a single T-shirt and pair of jeans. 73% of global cotton harvest comes from irrigated land, and the ground water is getting contaminated. Agriculture, sadly, is the largest source of pollution in most countries. 2.4% of the world’s cropland is planted with cotton, and yet it accounts for 24% and 11% of the global sales of insecticide and pesticides respectively. (Minnesota and North Dakota, tragically already have widespread aquifer and lake contamination from industrialized agriculture).
Hemp. That’s the best answer. It’s about three times the tensile strength of cotton, mold and UV resistant, uses very little water, pesticides or fertilizers, builds soil… and until the 1920s was about 80% of the clothing made in the US. Minnesota itself had 11 hemp mills. At Winona's Hemp & Heritage Farm are working to find ways to process our hemp to make clothes that is sustainable and kind to the earth.