Banned, but What About Microfibers?
By Jefferson Lai
Many cosmetic products on the market such as face scrubs, soap, and toothpaste contain plastic microbeads for exfoliating purposes.[i] Research has found that an estimated 11 billion microbeads go down the drain, pass through wastewater treatment systems and into U.S. waterways each day.[ii] On December 28, 2015, President Obama signed into law the Microbead-Free Waters Act (H.R. 1321) which banned the manufacturing and sale of plastic microbeads in rinse-off cosmetic products including toothpaste.[iii] Companies of such products must cease manufacture of microbead products by July 2017 and sale by July 2018.[iv] Many environmental groups considered the Act a victory, but others including Marcus Eriksen of 5 Gyres considered it a “low-hanging fruit” and that more needs to be done to eliminate other microplastics in the world’s waters.[v]
While microbeads have been the focus of Congress, the President, and eight states to date, microfibers have received considerably less attention.[vi] Microfibers are
“fine filaments made of petroleum-based materials such as polyester and nylon that are woven together into fabrics.”[vii]
Numerous studies have been done and revealed the prevalence of microfibers in our waters. For instance, on the surface of Lake Michigan, researchers found 19,000 strands of microfibers per square kilometer, which amounted to 16 percent of the total plastic recovered.[viii] At wastewater-treatment plants examined, microfibers accounted for 85% of the plastic in effluent.[ix] On shorelines at 18 sites around the world, ecologist Mark Browne examined and found that 85% of the synthetic materials at those sites were microfibers.[x]
What is the source of these microfibers in oceans and waterways? Apparel seems to be the obvious and logical culprit. A study by the United Nations revealed that synthetic clothing is roughly 50 percent and 68 percent of all clothing sold in developed and developing countries respectively.[xi] When clothes made of these synthetic fibers are laundered, microfibers break off and slipped passed wastewater treatment systems and end up in oceans and other bodies of water such as Lake Michigan.[xii] For instance, an experiment reveal that roughly 1,900 fibers were filtered from a single fleece jacket, and studies have estimated that around two billion microfibers are sent into Europe’s waters by laundry wastewaters.[xiii]
Microfibers entering into bodies of potable water such as Lake Michigan may pose serious health concerns. With a large surface relative to their size thereby allowing them to trap more chemicals and bacteria, microfibers have been found lodged in the stomach and intestines of fish caught and sold for consumption.[xiv] In addition, no studies have been conducted to detect microfibers in tap water.[xv]
Investigation into microfiber shedding has only just begun. The Outdoor Industry Association’s Sustainability Working Group representing 250 performance-apparel companies “recognizes the urgency around microfibers” and has started looking into the matter.[xvi] In addition, Browne and others are developing a mechanism to identify the origin of microfibers by examining the “fingerprint” manufacturers leave behind by their use of dyes and chemicals.[xvii]
The three sectors—apparel companies, washing machine manufacturers, and wastewater treatment plants—have not yet taken any action to address the issue. When Browne reached out industry leaders of synthetic apparel for funding for further research, all but one provided support (with only a one-time $10,000 grant).[xviii] When he contacted washing machine manufacturers, none responded.[xix] In addition, no engineer at wastewater treatment plants believed microfiber removal was viable.[xx]
Which of the three sectors should we turn to for the most feasible solution? Is microfiber legislation needed, and if so, which of them should be help responsible?
As the microbead saga comes to a close, perhaps a microfiber battle is on the horizon.
[i] John Schwartz, Ban on Microbeads Proves Easy to Pass Through Pipeline (Feb. 18, 2016), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/23/science/ban-on-microbeads-proves-easy-to-pass-through-pipeline.html.
[iii] Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015.
[v] Schwartz, supra note 1.
[vi] Amena H. Saiyid, Plastic Microbeads in Waters Prompt Regulatory Efforts (Feb. 18, 2016), http://www.bna.com/plastic-microbeads-waters-n57982058641/.
[vii] Dirty Laundry: Scientists Warn of Microfiber Pollution in Great Lakes (Feb. 16, 2016), http://www.nbcnews.com/science/environment/dirty-laundry-scientists-warn-microfiber-pollution-great-lakes-n283361.
[viii] Michael Hawthorne, A new pollution worry for Lake Michigan: Tiny plastic fibers (Feb. 20, 2016), http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-great-lakes-fiber-pollution-20150130-story.html.
[x] Mary Catherine O’Connor, Inside the lonely fight against the biggest environmental problem you’ve never heard of (Feb. 16, 2016), http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2014/oct/27/toxic-plastic-synthetic-microscopic-oceans-microbeads-microfibers-food-chain.
[xi] O’Connor, supra note 9.
[xii] Hawthorne, supra note 8.
[xiii] O’Connor, supra note 9.
[xiv] Hawthorne, supra note 8.
[xvi] O’Connor, supra note 9.
[xviii] O’Connor, supra note 10.