In February, a group of activists and researchers will set sail from the Galápagos Islands to Easter Island. The 2,000-mile trip is just one leg on a two-year journey to collect the first global data set of microfibre pollution.
Environmental scientists are finding microscopic plastics virtually everywhere they look — a consequence that the fashion industry bears significant responsibility for. Clothing made from synthetic materials — polyester, nylon and acrylic — sheds so-called microfibres, a type of microplastic contaminating waterways, and increasingly, the air. Plastic contaminants also enter the natural environment throughout the manufacturing process.
Synthetic clothing releases tiny plastic fibres when they’re washed and as they wear down over time. Microplastics are being found in the most remote corners of the planet, causing problems like fish mistaking them for food, but the full extent of the damage they may cause isn’t yet clear. Some scientists have said that this likely isn’t good for human health.
No one knows exactly how much microplastic pollution comes from fashion, but the $167 billion athleisure category and polyester-fuelled fast fashion are some key contributors.
Identifying the source of the problem
The move to increase data collection on microfibre pollution comes as public concern about microplastics heats up. For the first time, campaign group Fashion Revolution is including a question in its annual Transparency Index, which includes 200 of the biggest global fashion brands, about efforts to minimise the impacts of microfibres. The Microfibre Consortium, a UK-based industry collaborative, recently released what it calls the first standardised methodology for measuring microfibre losses. (The lack of a trusted methodology was the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s stated reason for not including microplastics impacts in its Higg Materials Sustainability Index, a tool brands use to make more eco-friendly sourcing choices.)
Since microplastics come in various sizes from many sources and have no identifying properties, they’re hard to trace to their source. Filling those gaps is a crucial first step in the industry being able to reduce its role in the microplastics problem.
Carry Somers, the Fashion Revolution co-founder who is joining the sailing expedition, aims to use the data to help fashion enterprises identify ways to reduce their contribution to microfibre pollution. She will provide the data to H&M, which will partially fund her trip; Patagonia; and others that have expressed interest. The hope is that it will guide decisions like which regions or manufacturing processes to prioritise.
While manufacturers can currently take steps like installing wastewater treatment systems, there’s no way to know if such efforts are targeting the main sources or just stemming a leak when there’s a gush somewhere else. “If we can understand how much loss is coming from a variety of materials, we can tell companies so R&D can develop materials in a different way,” says Sophie Mather, the consortium’s managing director.
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