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Why Microplastic is a Big Pollution Problem

All that athleisure could be harming oceans, food and our bodies

There are millions of microplastics in the ocean, including microscopic fibers from synthetic clothing, which work their way up the food chain.

For years, scientists have been finding plastic in the bodies of whales, birds and other marine wildlife. Sometimes it’s straws or entire plastic bags, though small particles can also wreak havoc. Since plastic litters huge swaths of the natural world, it didn’t come as a huge surprise last year when a study found plastic particles in people, too.

The study, led by a gastroenterologist at the Medical University of Vienna, found plastics in human stool samples. Around the same time, another research effort co-authored by South Korea’s Incheon National University and Greenpeace East Asia found the same contaminants, known as “microplastics,” in 90% of the 39 table salt brands sampled worldwide. These microplastics are only a centimeter or less in length, no larger than the size of a sesame seed.

As World Oceans Day approaches on Saturday, June 8, the evidence about microplastic is piling up, and so is the pollution. One type of tiny plastic contaminant is the fiber that comes from clothing made of synthetic materials like nylon, polyester, fleece, and Spandex. Microfiber yoga pants, outdoor apparel and sports jerseys are major culprits.

Sarah-Jeanne Royer, a researcher studying plastic degradation at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, says these fibers come off when we shake, wear and wash our clothes. From washing machines, microplastics flow to nearby waterways and get washed into the ocean, since particles are too small to be caught by wastewater treatment plants. Marine animals consume the fibers, which then start working their way up the food chain.

“The fibers are so tiny, about a fifth the diameter of a human hair, that every time we eat, we are actually eating these invisible fibers because they get deposited on our food,” Royer says. “You can think of a sunny day at home when you look at the sun coming through your window, where you can observe all of these particles floating in the air. A lot of those particles contain microfibers. Hence we drink them, we breathe them, and we eat them even without knowing it. They are in our bodies.”

It’s unclear what happens to plastic microfibers once they enter the body—whether they break down or just pass through. The chief concern with plastic consumption is not so much from the plastic itself, but from the toxins and chemicals that may leach into our bodies.

Royer says that there are between and 140,000-700,000 microfibers released in each load of laundry that we wash, depending on the type of clothing and size of the load. Royer and her team are testing how quickly different types of microfibers break down.

To combat microfiber pollution, the Santa Cruz-based nonprofit Save Our Shores is advocating for new laws to mandate installation of microfiber-trapping filters on home washing machines. The group also hopes to partner with the county and researchers at UCSC to launch a county-wide research project about these filters.

“We are trying to get people to voluntarily install them, and then get researchers to check and see how many microfibers come out of the machine before and then after the filters have been installed,” says Katherine O’Dea, executive director of Save Our Shores, which has included microfibers on its “Sinister Six” list of top plastic ocean pollutants. “That will help us with two things: the volume that is being put out into the waste stream, and then how well the filters are working.”

The project has garnered a tentative $30,000 commitment from the California Ocean Protection Council, and Save Our Shores hopes for an additional $70,000 via grants and fundraisers to conduct a 300-person, multi-year study.

“To our knowledge, no one has really looked at local waters or wastewater to find out how much is in our water,” says Tim Goncharoff, zero waste programs manager for Santa Cruz County. “That would be really useful information to have, so that going forward we can document improvement, but we’ll need some baseline data.”

In the absence of robust local research, Goncharoff says the county has not yet taken a position on microfibers. At around $100 each, the filters are designed for residential and smaller-scale uses. Filters for industrial machines are not yet available.

TESTING THE WATERS

In addition to microfibers, Save Our Shores’ list of “sinister” pollutants takes aim at single-use toiletry bottles, water bottles and coffee pods. The group is also working to curb balloon sales, and has been warning contact lens users not to flush their used lenses down the toilet. The nonprofit has made political headway.

“The county is going to ban the sale or use of bottled water in county offices and at county events,” O’Dea says. “The progress isn’t as fast as I’d like to see, but we are making some.”

The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors also approved a ban on small, single-use plastic bottles of soaps and other personal care products in hotels, inns and vacation rentals in the county’s unincorporated area. The ordinance, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, will go into effect late next year. State Assemblymembers Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) and Mark Stone (D-Scotts Valley) co-authored a bill proposing a statewide ban this year. The bill, which must still be approved by the California Senate, would take effect in 2023.

Still, there have been missteps along the way. When companies began using recycled plastic to make textiles—Patagonia’s recycled polyester jackets made from plastic soda bottles, for instance—it seemed like a big environmental victory. Plastic that might otherwise litter the beach could now be put to good use. But that was before researchers learned about the danger of microfibers.

For now, Save Our Shores isn’t necessarily advocating for fewer purchases of synthetic garments, since all apparel contains some kind of fiber byproduct. The group says washing machine filters are a more efficient option for those who can afford them.

UCSC Adjunct Associate Professor Myra Finkelstein says that the interesting thing about microfibers is that they seem to have a “fairly straightforward fix.” But even those who install the filters aren’t off the hook.

“People still have to dispose of the filters and fibers properly,” says Finkelstein, a wildlife toxicologist. “You can’t just wash them down the drain. Also, the plastic fibers will go into the landfill when you throw them away. We need to start thinking about how we cut back on plastics across the board.”

Santa Cruz nonprofits will celebrate World Oceans Day this weekend. On Friday, June 7, the Sanctuary Exploration Center at 35 Pacific Ave. will host an opening of ‘From Ocean Trash to Ocean Inspiration,’ featuring five locals who transform trash into art. Save Our Shores will host a March for the Ocean on Saturday, June 8, from 3-6 p.m. from Lighthouse Field to Cowell Beach, where activists will create a human chain to highlight sea-level rise. saveourshores.org.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. julie

    June 8, 2019 at 11:30 am

    GT pointed out that the microfiber filter is a good solution “for those that can afford them.” Why doesn’t the County (and for that matter the City) of Santa Cruz and/or the water agencies offer a rebate on the filters, like for compost bins? This is a super important issue, especially for our seaside region. The filters will probably also save money in terms of wastewater filtration in the long run (since they appear to filter out other things as well).

  2. Gail McNulty

    June 5, 2019 at 6:40 am

    Kick-off WORLD OCEANS WEEK Thursday with a Rio Theatre screening of BLUE!
    Hosted by Save Our Shores

    A multiple award-winning Australian documentary, BLUE is fearlessly truth-telling, yet passionately hopeful. A panel discussion with local experts Dan Haifley, Gary Griggs, Jason Scorse, and Donna Meyers follows the film. Doors open at 6PM. Film begins at 6:30PM.

    $10 Early Bird Tickets at bit.ly/SOSBLUE
    $15 at the door

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