Conscious Consumerism

Micro Problems. Big Deal.

apparel, environment, plasticNick OgdenComment

Last week I briefly discussed the problem of plastic; China is no longer taking much of the world's recycled plastic so countries are having to find new ways to deal with their waste. One of the biggest issues with plastics is one that we don't even think about, microfibers. All clothing produces small bits of fabric that rubs off in the wash, cotton and other mostly easily biodegradable fabrics will disappear and rejoin the ecosystems they are deposited in. The other kind of non-biodegradable or synthetic microfibers are those derived from fabrics made of plastic or petroleum bases. These would include nylons (not made from bamboo), polyesters, polar-fleece, and the like. Often these types of fabrics are used for cheap fast fashion clothing, active wear, and waterproofed clothing. As we wash our clothes they slowly and sometimes quickly degrade leaving behind bits of fabric to be washed down the drain. More often then not the bits of fabric are so small that a lot of modern public filtration systems cannot sift out these micro bits of fabric, letting them get into our water ways and our oceans. We let a lot of things get into our waters but why is this such a problem?

Microfibers are a real problem not just because they do not biodegrade in an short amount of time but also due to the fact that many forms of marine life mistake them as food. This causes massive problems for the marine life that consumes the fibers because they not only block normal digestive patterns of the organisms they also are tend to cary chemicals. These chemicals take their tole on the organisms that eat them, leaching their toxins into the organism and then progress up the food chain as bigger and bigger organisms feed. This can be thought of much like mercury levels in large fish. The chemicals are leached into the organisms that consume the microfibers but also the ecosystems, introducing foreign chemicals to the fragile ecosystems that they are not native to. The real concern with microfibers is the passive nature of their devastation.

More often then not, the problems that are pushed to change by consumers are those that smack society in the face. The real big problems that are obvious and we are reacting to. Microfibers are the opposite, they are created during the cleaning of fabrics and go unnoticed to consumers until it is a real issue. Still there is debate by some consumers that their contributions are making an impact on the problem but they are. Due to the actual size of the fibers and how they are created, they are a passive issue, one that can be actively avoided but because consumers aren't directly effected by them its a non issue. This is not the case! All consumers that own synthetic fabrics are contributing to this problem every time they put a wash of clothing on. Scientists are still fighting the fight against GHG emissions contributing to climate change because again, these are basically passive contributions. Yes, we have come a great way and new tech is always hitting the market with reduced or zero GHG emissions during their productions and promised during their use but there is still a disconnect from some consumers. It takes consistent beating over the head with hard facts but we will get there. It is not only up to consumers to push markets, it is up to industry to do so as well. One of my favorite companies, not only apparel company but overall just fantastic organizations, is Patagonia.

I have dusted many of my articles, briefly discussing my affinity, with Patagonia. They are a badass renegade of a company that flies in the face of the fashion and sporting world. Recently, they realized the impact of synthetic microfibers on ecosystems and their disruptive nature of natural processes. Patagonia has also realized the lack of government regulation due to ignorance, with this in mind they put together a scientific literature review which provides background to the subject and critical analysis of microfiber impact. The review is concluded with clear recommendations for policy-makers and organizations to address microfiber pollution from synthetic fabrics. Their analysis concluded with two distinct factors that majorly contributed to microfiber pollution: garment age and type of washing machine. Older clothing, with lose fibers, washed in top-load machines create more microfibers then the same jackets [as well as new] washed in front-load machines. The reason they found that top-load machines produced more microfibers was often due to their central-agitator, popular in that style of machines. Other factors included temperature of the wash, cycle length, and detergent type. The review did not take into consideration the use of high-efficient top-load machines, which they recommend further analysis of. Lastly, the analysis finished admitting there are no current alternative fibers that offer the same performance as the synthetics.

Patagonia admits, through the analysis discussed above as well as on their website, that there is simply no alternative to many of the synthetic fibers that they use. The technology just is not there yet. However, they are researching hard to find alternatives and they do give a few suggestions to minimize a persons contribution to microfiber pollution: 

  1. Keep Using It: by using gear and clothing longer and getting the full valued lifespan out of a garment then we are overall impacting the earth less. 
  2. Wash Less Often: by washing synthetic garments only when needed as they dirty and not on a constant rotation, we can minimize garment degradation during wash resulting in fewer microfibers released into ecosystems. 
  3. Invest in Front-Load Washers: from their critical analysis Patagonia and the other researching groups found that front-load washers degraded garments slower releasing less microfibers. 
  4. Use Fiber Filters: These are bags that you put your synthetic garments and fabrics into that help filter and capture microfibers released during washing. Patagonia is selling a version of these bags AT COST to help reduce this problem and incentives consumers to use them. 

Taking all this into consideration, Patagonia is doing their part to increase awareness of this problem as well as giving consumers the opportunity to reduce their contribution to this problem. If you use synthetic fabrics and garments made from these, I beg you to look for alternatives or do your part and reduce your contribution! Organic and natural fibers are often a better environmental option then synthetics, in some cases and conditions these options are not suitable. Keep an eye and an ear out for new technology hitting the market, we will solve this problem. 

Here at NO Standard Co. we are committed to producing garments and apparel that are as least impactful on the environment as possible. All our clothing is made from natural fibers, usually a blend of organic cotton and nylon derived from bamboo. -Pass the word along!-

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