Something in the Water - Microfibres. By Lauren Smith and Nicole Balliston from PolyGone Technologies
Something in the Water
There is a massive, invisible problem infiltrating the water we swim in, fish from, and drink. It is in the fish we eat, the water (even bottled) we drink, the honey we savor, and the beer we enjoy¹ ² ³. It’s everywhere, it’s increasing, and we contribute to this problem every time we wash our clothes⁴. This problem is a type of microplastic, known as the microfibre.
A portion of microplastic pollution comes from the breaking apart of the eight million tons of plastic that enter oceans every year⁷. Plastic takes hundreds of years to degrade, but it first breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, some small enough to be considered microplastic⁸. Another source of microplastic pollution may be familiar. Perhaps you have heard about microbeads, the tiny, plastic beads that are used in exfoliating body scrubs, toothpastes, and face wash. Representing 4% of all microplastic pollution, microbeads are now banned in Canada and the EU⁹. The largest contributor, however, with no regulations or production restrictions, are microfibres, making up 94% of microplastic pollution¹°. 94 percent!
These nearly invisible plastic fibres are released during the washing of synthetic textiles –polyester (fleece), nylon, spandex, and more – all fabrics that are common in athletic wear or outdoor gear⁴. The yoga pants, the fleece jacket, the waterproof snow pants, the quick-dry race shirt – all are examples of clothing that are contributing to this problem. When washed, microfibres shed from these synthetic items and travel with the washing machine’s waste water through sewer systems and into waterways⁴. Millions of these fibres are released everyday into our rivers, lakes, and oceans. For example, a recent study found that 400 million microfibres enter Lake Winnipeg alone, every year¹¹. Even the most advanced wastewater treatment plants cannot stop microfibres entirely; they weren’t designed to. Microfibres that are captured are trapped in a sludge by-product of wastewater treatment that is used on agricultural fields as fertilizer⁹. When it rains, microfibres are washed into waterways with runoff, foiling any of the successful capture.
An Increasing Problem
Once in waterways, microfibres look (and smell) a lot like food to small aquatic creatures, such as mussels, clams, and small fish¹². These animals are food for larger animals, who are eaten by even larger animals, and so on up the food chain. Microfibres stunt fish growth and can even lead to fish death due to blockages in the digestive system¹³. What’s worse – even before microfibres are consumed they collect toxins from their surrounding environment. Pesticides, PCBs, BPA, and persistent organic pollutants stick to and build up on these plastic fibres⁹ ¹⁴. These chemicals have been linked to an assortment of health issues, including diabetes, liver and thyroid disease, developmental delays, and a variety of cancers⁴ ¹⁵ ¹⁶. Further, as the fibres move up the food chain, being eaten by larger and larger species, the quantity of microfibres increases in concentration, a process known as biomagnification¹⁷. The species at the top of the food chain receives the highest concentration of microfibres. This has been illustrated in a recent study on seals, finding microfibres in seal feces that originated from their consumption of wild fish¹⁸. The species at the very top of the food chain? Us.
At this point, you may be thinking, “But I don’t eat seafood! I’m safe!”. Unfortunately, this story gets worse before it gets better (but stick with me, it will get better!). Microfibres have been found not only in honey, salt, beer, and bottled beverages, but studies have found microfibres in 83% of the world’s tap water¹ ² ³. They are simply unavoidable, and we can’t even see them to pick them out of our food. While one option to reduce this threat may be to purchase and wash only natural fibres from now on, the synthetic textiles industry has been growing steadily for years, and is projected to increase. Polyester surpassed cotton as the dominant fibre globally in 2002¹⁹, and, currently, the average wardrobe is predominantly synthetic²°. Banning synthetic textiles completely would create significant problems for an already troubled textile waste and recycling industry (textile recycling is challenging, and we are already producing more textile waste than we can handle²¹). So, what are we to do?
We are developing filtration technologies to capture microfibres before they enter our waterways and before they enter our food and beverage. PolyGone Sheet is a user-friendly product you can add into the washing machine with your laundry that will capture microfibres as they are released. Between loads just clean it out and reuse. Collected microfibres can be returned to us for proper handling as most municipal recycling programs cannot recycle microfibres. PolyGone Filters will come in two forms: one that can be attached to the washing machine and one that is customizable for industrial applications. We hope that one day every new washing machine will come with a microfibre filter from the manufacturer, making it even easier to prevent microfibre emissions. Industries that could benefit from our filters include breweries, aquaculture, water treatment, or other beverage processing. This way we can maximize microfibre capture and minimize microfibre emissions as much as possible. While we don’t have our products ready for sale yet, we have seen very high capture rates in the lab and are working as hard to have a beta version ready for trial soon!
Microfibre Emission Rating - MER
We also think it is incredibly important for industries to start tracking and reporting on their microfibre emissions and the microfibres that their products can release. There are so many things to keep track of when trying to live sustainably. If companies can start communicating transparently their contributions to microfibre pollution, it can help make those environmental choices that little bit easier. Just how EnerGuide labels rate energy efficiency of various appliances²², a Microfibre Emission Rating could clearly communicate the microfibre contribution of a given appliance or apparel item. It is likely that different materials release different amounts of microfibres, and research has shown different types of washing machines release more or less microfibres⁴. Plastics are all derived from oil, so this could all be considered within carbon footprint calculations. If you want this type of rating, sign our petition here to ask our government to implement this requirement!
Let’s Do This
While the microfibre problem can seem overwhelming and unescapable, we do hope our work can provide some hope. In the meantime, consider the other areas in your life where plastic persists and how you can reduce your reliance. Remember your shopping bags, refuse the plastic straws you don’t need, bring your travel mug and thermos, repair your belongings before tossing and replacing, look for sustainable fashion brands, and help others do the same! The more we help each other out and spread awareness, the more we can help hold each other accountable to reduce our reliance on plastics. What are you already doing? What advice do you have for others trying to cut plastics out of their life? Please share in the comments! If you want to stay in the loop and be the first to know when our products our available, follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and on our blog at polygonetechnologies.com.
About the Authors
Lauren graduated with an MES Sustainability Management in 2017, with a specialization in water from the Water Institute at the University of Waterloo. This connection brought her to the AquaHacking competition in the summer of 2017, a “hackathon” focused on bettering Lake Erie. Here, she began learning about the microplastics problem and realized very little was being done about microfibres, despite their massive contribution to this problem. Since, she has been applying her research in behaviour change and decision making to this problem, developing her entrepreneurial skills, and working hard in the lab to create highly effective microfibre capture technology – the goal of PolyGone Technologies. Lauren is joined by Nicole Balliston (PhD candidate in Geography and Environmental Management), another Water Institute graduate, whose research focuses on flow-through porous media and holds extensive lab and field experience. Nicole leads lab management and product design, using her technical know how and engineering background to help PolyGone Technologies create the best products possible. Together, this all-female company strives to bring the most effective, sustainable, and environmentally responsible solution to microfibre pollution.
¹ Tyree, C., & Morrison, D. (2017). Invisibles: The plastic inside us. Orb Media. Retrieved from https://orbmedia.org/stories/Invisibles_plastics
² Liebezeit, G., & Liebezeit, E. (2013). Non-pollen particulates in honey and sugar. Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A, 30(12), 2136-2140. doi:10.1080/19440049.2013.843025
³ Liebezeit, G., & Liebezeit, E. (2014). Synthetic particles as contaminants in German beers. Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A, 31(9), 1574-1578. doi:10.1080/19440049.2014.945099
⁴ Hartline, N. L., Bruce, N. J., Karba, S. N., Ruff, E. O., Sonar, S. U., & Holden, P. A. (2016). Microfiber masses recovered from conventional machine washing of new or aged garments. Environmental Science & Technology, 50(21), 11532-11538. doi:10.1021/acs.est.6b03045
⁵ Leslie, H., van der Meulen, M., Kleissen, F., & Vethaak, A. (2011). Microplastic litter in the Dutch marine environment: Providing facts and analysis for Dutch policymakers concerned with marine microplastic litter. Deltares, 1-106.
⁶ Laville, S., & Taylor, M. (2017, June 28). A million bottles a minute: World's plastic binge 'as dangerous as climate change'. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jun/28/a-million-a-minute-worlds-plastic-bottle-binge-as-dangerous-as-climate-change
⁷ Chow, L. (2017, April 07). Microplastics in oceans outnumber stars in our galaxy by 500 times. Retrieved from https://www.ecowatch.com/microplastics-world-ocean-summit-2282357538.html
⁸ Parker, L. (2017, July 20). A whopping 91% of plastic isn't recycled. Retrieved from https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/07/plastic-produced-recycling-waste-ocean-trash-debris-environment
⁹ House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee. (2016). Environmental impact of microplastics (Vol. 4, pp. 1-42, Rep.). London, UK: House of Commons
¹° Kanhai, L. D., Officer, R., Lyashevska, O., Thompson, R. C., & Oconnor, I. (2017). Microplastic abundance, distribution and composition along a latitudinal gradient in the Atlantic Ocean. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 115(1-2), 307-314. doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2016.12.025
¹¹ Warrack, S., Challis, J. K., Hanson, M. L., & Rennie, M. D. (2017). Microplastics flowing into Lake Winnipeg: Densities, sources, flux, and fish exposures. Proceedings of Manitoba’s Undergraduate Science and Engineering Research, 3, 5-15. doi:10.5203/pmuser.201730578
¹² Savoca, M. S., Tyson, C. W., Mcgill, M., & Slager, C. J. (2017). Odours from marine plastic debris induce food search behaviours in a forage fish. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 284(1860). doi:10.1098/rspb.2017.1000
¹³ Watts, A. J., Urbina, M. A., Corr, S., Lewis, C., & Galloway, T. S. (2015). Ingestion of plastic microfibers by the crab Carcinus maenas and its effect on food consumption and energy balance. Environmental Science & Technology, 49(24), 14597-14604. doi:10.1021/acs.est.5b04026
¹⁴ Lee, J. (2015). Economic valuation of marine litter and microplastic pollution in the marine environment: An initial assessment of the case of the United Kingdom. Centre for Financial & Management Studies, 126, 1-17. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/283680054_Economic_valuation_of_marine_litter_and_microplastic_pollution_in_the_marine_environment_An_initial_assessment_of_the_case_of_the_United_Kingdom.
¹⁵ Åström, L. (2015). Shedding of synthetic microfibers from textiles. University of Gothenburg: Examination course in Environmental science, 1-36. Retrieved from https://bioenv.gu.se/digitalAssets/1568/1568686_linn---str--m.pdf.
¹⁶ Alonso-Magdalena, P., Vieira, E., Soriano, S., Menes, L., Burks, D., Quesada, I., & Nadal, A. (2010). Bisphenol A exposure during pregnancy disrupts glucose homeostasis in mothers and adult male offspring. Environmental Health Perspectives, 118(9), 1243-1250. doi:10.1289/ehp.1001993
¹⁷ Farrell, P., & Nelson, K. (2013). Trophic level transfer of microplastic: Mytilus edulis (L.) to Carcinus maenas (L.). Environmental Pollution, 177, 1-3. doi:10.1016/j.envpol.2013.01.046
¹⁸ Nelms, S. E., Galloway, T. S., Godley, B. J., Jarvis, D. S., & Lindeque, P. K. (2018). Investigating microplastic trophic transfer in marine top predators. Environmental Pollution. doi:10.1016/j.envpol.2018.02.016
¹⁹ Carmichael, A. (2015). Man-Made fibers continue to grow. Textile World.
²° Bain, M. (2015, June 05). If your clothes aren't already made out of plastic, they will be. Retrieved from https://qz.com/414223/if-your-clothes-arent-already-made-out-of-plastic-they-will-be/
²¹ Kielburger, C., & Kielburger, M. (2016, June 23). We shouldn't be filling up our landfills with clothing. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/craig-and-marc-kielburger/clothing-waste-canada_b_10634478.html
²² Natural Resources Canada. (2018, January 26). EnerGuide in Canada. Retrieved from http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/energy/products/energuide/12523