Microplastics: A Danger to the World Environment and Human Health
A study of microplastics in the Great Lakes in North America published in September of this year provides additional evidence that polyester fibers in clothing pose a previously unacknowledged risk to the environment and human health. Researchers looked for microplastic particles (0.33 to 1 mm) in samples of water, and the most common forms found were plastic microfibers from clothes, diapers and cigarette butts.
The research shows that microplastics are harmful to animal health and potentially to human health. Ingested microplastics can cause digestive and reproductive problems, as well as death, in fish, birds and other animals. Unhealthy additives in the plastic, including flame retardants and antimicrobials, have been associated with cancer and endocrine disruption in humans.
Scientists have found microplastics nearly everywhere. Aside from rivers, microplastics are also common in lakes and oceans, in freshwater and marine fish, oysters and mussels, and in sediment. They are deposited onto land and water surfaces from the atmosphere.
More broadly, all forms of plastic, not just microplastics, pose threats to the environment. As quoted from, “Bottles, bags, ropes, and, toothbrushes: the struggle to track ocean plastics,” by Daniel Cressey in Nature, 17 August 2016 < http://www.nature.com/news/bottles-bags-ropes-and-toothbrushes-the-struggle-to-track-ocean-plastics-1.20432>,
“From Arctic to Antarctic, from surface to sediment, in every marine environment where scientists have looked, they have found plastic. Other human-generated debris rots or rusts away, but plastics can persist for years, killing animals, polluting the environment and blighting coastlines. By some estimates, plastics comprise 50–80% of the litter in the oceans.”
The issue of plastic and microplastic pollution is rising on the agenda of the international community. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) passed a resolution at its Nairobi meeting in May 2016, stating that “the presence of plastic litter and microplastics in the marine environment is a rapidly increasing serious issue of global concern that needs an urgent global response”.
Even retailers, who are usually the last to be aware of science or to care about empirical reality that might impede their sales or sales margins, are beginning to acknowledge the negative impacts of microfibers from synthetic apparel. For instance, the clothing retailer Patagonia funded a study of pollution from synthetic microfibers, a subcategory of microplastics consisting of fibers shed from clothing or other textiles. The study, “MICROFIBER POLLUTION and the apparel industry,” by Bruce, Hartline, Karba, Ruff and Sonar, with Faculty Advisor Holden of the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, University of California, Santa Barbara, found that synthetic apparel contributes substantially to microplastic pollution when water is discharged from washing machines. < http://brenmicroplastics.weebly.com/project-findings.html>
In addition to pollution from the microfibers themselves, research indicates that hazardous chemicals are transported into the environment along with the fibers. Aquatic organisms throughout the food chain consume microplastics and microfibers, causing harmful impacts ranging from starvation to reproductive impacts. Microplastics and microfibers have also been found in marine organisms consumed by humans, with unknown effects.
Fashion Trends Encourage Micro Particle Pollution
The most significant advances by the polyester fibers industry over recent decades have all been linked to the development of finer, more delicate products made from finer deniers. Therefore, manmade fibers seem to have migrated in a direction which precisely amplifies the production of microparticles. Polyester’s progress in these new fiber types has been particularly rapid, and this is the key engine that has allowed it to gain market share from other fibers. One logical response to the micro particle challenge is stronger polymers and heavier dpf (denier per filament) products, which would roll back 20-30 years of aesthetic improvement.
Implications for Cotton
Cotton has been demonized for decades because of the self-interests of advocates of organic cotton and retailers seeking brand differentiation. (Demonization is defined as describing practices decades out of date as being current, giving statistics without context or perspective, and alleging linkages between cotton and harm without scientific basis.)
Because cotton is a perennial, broad leafed crop, it is inherently technology intensive, meaning that cotton cannot be produced on a commercial scale without using fertilizer and pesticides. In addition, cotton is a water efficient crop and so is grown in arid and semiarid regions, like West Africa, Central Asia and Maharashtra. Incredibly, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and other environmental groups criticize cotton for being grown in areas of water scarcity, as if farmers would be better off growing other crops in such areas instead.
Other agricultural products also face criticism from environmental groups for a variety of factors, ranging from antibiotic use in poultry, to biotechnology in corn and soybeans, to nitrogen fertilizer runoff from corn production in the Midwest of the United States. Cotton might get extra scrutiny because it is labor intensive, and so prone to labor abuses, and because it is a cash crop, not a food crop, and so it is easier to criticize small holder production.
However, the new research on the presence of microplastic particles in the environment from polyester in clothing may begin to change the structure of incentives that encourages the demonization of cotton. For all of cotton’s problems, at least it all is biodegradable, and all the inputs used in cotton production are themselves natural products or biodegradable products. At some point, environmentalists and retailers, whose criticism of cotton has always been an implicit endorsement of polyester, will have to begin to weigh the realities of tradeoffs in fiber use.