clothing brand Patagonia recently commissioned a research study to evaluate how many microfibers
are released from its nylon and polyester jackets. The results show that synthetic
microfibers from fleece clothing are an alarmingly serious water pollutant.
in studying pollution caused by clothing fibers was initially created by
Plymouth University researcher Richard Thompson and his graduate student, Mark Browne, who were researching
microplastics in marine environments. When they examined sandy sediments from
beaches, they found that most of the plastic fragments were fibrous, meaning
that they came from clothing, rope, or some types of packaging.
They later found that
washing a single fleece jacket released about 1,900 microfibers into the waste
Later studies found high
concentrations of polyester and acrylic fibers in samples taken near wastewater
Another study in
Amsterdam found that laundry wastewater was sending around two billion
synthetic microfibers per second into Europe’s waters.
treatment plants remove most of the plastic fibers from wastewater, researchers
found that an estimated 65 million pieces of microplastics still gets through into
watersheds each day. Polyester, the main fiber used in fleece, makes up the
largest share of the plastics that get through.
Other studies have revealed
that toxins such as DDT and PCBs can bind to synthetic fibers as they make
their way into watersheds.
Studies have also shown that
small aquatic species ingest the fibers. Fibers have been found in fish sold
for human consumption, and in sludge used as fertilizer.
The new Patagonia study:
the Patagonia clothing brand
decided to commission a study to find out if and how Patagonia’s popular
fleeces and some other synthetic products were contributing to the
problem. The study was performed
by graduate students at the Bren School of Environmental Science
and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
tested three Patagonia fleece jackets, each with slightly different
construction, as well as a nylon shell jacket that contains polyester
insulation, plus a “budget” fleece jacket made by an undisclosed brand.
of the main findings from the study were:
During laundering, a
single fleece jacket sheds as many as 250,000 synthetic fibers.
Fiber loss appears to be
related to the type of washing machine and the age of the garment.
Garments released five
times as many microfibers when washed in top-loading washing
machines compared to front-loaders, and older jackets released
80 percent more fiber.
Compared to Patagonia
jackets, the average mass of fiber shed from the budget jacket of undisclosed
origin was much higher when it was washed at the new stage in a
front-loader. In top-loaders, the budget jacket shed a comparable amount of
fiber, on average, to the others when new.
The nylon shell jacket also
released a comparable amount of fiber to the fleece jackets in some tests, and
even more in other tests, indicating that the polyester fill escaped through
seams or the shell fabric.
to get ahead of the problem, Patagonia hopes to partner with the Outdoor
Industry Association to turn the UCSB researchers’ testing protocol into
an industry standard that would enable all clothing manufacturers to set a
benchmark for fiber release from their apparel products. Currently, there are
no laws that limit microfiber pollution.
and other apparel companies will also try to research new yarn and fabric
constructions to cut down microfiber shedding. This is already being researched
by a European Commission–funded research program called Mermaids, which is developing
a special coating or impregnation that would be applied to the fabric during
manufacture and, in theory, reduce the amount of fiber loss.
Mermaids program has also released some guidelines to decrease microfiber
pollution based on its initial research, including suggestions to avoid the use
of detergents with high pH, powder detergents, and the use of oxidizing agents.
It also suggests washing clothing in cold water and softening hard water.