Microfibers: What We Know So Far

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Editor’s note updated June 6, 2017: REI has partnered with the Vancouver Aquarium and other brands on a research project to better understand where microfibers come from and how to track them in the environment. The project will review synthetic and natural textiles with different constructions and finishes to assess how material attributes influence fiber shedding. Through this process, the research team will investigate the extent free fibers can be identified at a molecular level. This research will classify what type of fibers are most abundant in samples from different locations and identify opportunities for improvement prior to product development. 

As outsiders, gear junkies and co-op members, we care deeply about the environment and the pursuit of a life well lived.

Today, we are taking a moment to share what we know so far about microfibers, an emerging topic that REI is tracking closely. Our intent is to share what we do and don’t know and to provide our members guidance on work that is underway on this topic.

What are microfibers and what do we know about how they impact the environment?

We know that over time, everything from the sofa in your living room to your favorite T-shirt is breaking down. When fabrics or other fiber-based materials break down, they can shed “microfibers,” tiny filaments typically nanometers in diameter, much smaller than the width of a piece of hair.

Microfibers can be natural materials (e.g., cotton, hemp, wool) or synthetic (e.g., polyester, acrylic, nylon). In most instances they contain dyes and other treatments imparted to the original fabrics. Over time, every fabric will release these microfibers.

Synthetic fibers have been a main area of microfiber research because synthetic microfibers will resist breakdown in the environment and therefore may increase in concentration over time. Natural microfibers are more prone to breaking down when exposed to the elements.

Washing clothes in a washing machine at home is one way that microfibers are released. Our main concern is about preliminary research indicating that, along with other plastics, microfibers from a number of sources are appearing in water bodies where they can enter the food chain.

What’s being done?

This is a relatively new area of focus, and studies are just beginning to help us understand what we do and don’t know. Initial studies indicate that 95%–99% of microfibers are captured in the types of municipal wastewater treatment systems common in the US. Researchers are working to understand more, including how microfibers are released, in what types and quantities, where they are coming from and the potential impacts on natural systems.

We know that no single entity or business will be able to solve this alone, and manufacturers and consumers will need to work together to bring about change. As a member-owned co-op, we want to be open and engaged with our members on challenging topics like this, even when we do not yet have full answers. We are focused on knowing more. Our approach begins with understanding the facts.

To that end, we are monitoring the latest research, encouraging additional research to fill in known gaps, and lending our expertise where it is helpful to identify the best path forward.  While there may be no easy way to fully eliminate microfibers, we will seek continual progression to reduce impacts.

To drive progress through the industry as a whole, REI and other outdoor brands have partnered with the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) and formed the OIA Microfibers Task Force. This task force brings together materials providers, brands, retailers, the appliance manufacturing association, academic researchers, and scientists to better understand the research and recognize the sources, quantities and effects of microfiber pollution to determine the most responsible path forward.

As this topic unfolds we will share updates with our members and customers through our blog.

What you can do to reduce microfibers shedding from your gear?

While there are many unknowns regarding microfibers, here are some actions that are highly likely to reduce the potential creation of microfibers and their impact:

  • Wash clothes less frequently to reduce the creation and release of microfibers.
  • When you do wash, use a front-load washing machine and wash on the delicate setting. Research has shown that using a front-load rather than a top-load washing machine can result in 5 times less microfiber shedding.
  • Ensure you have a well-functioning septic or public sewer connection. Recent studies show that up to 99% of microfibers are captured in common types of municipal wastewater treatment systems.
  • Buy products made of high-quality materials, which initial studies have shown to have a lower rate of microfiber shedding.

Additional resources:

  1. Fate of microplastics and other small anthropogenic litter (SAL) in wastewater treatment plants depends on unit processes employed. Environmental Science: Water Research and Technology 2 (2016):1064–1073. http://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlepdf/2016/ew/c6ew00207b
  2. Microfiber pollution and the apparel industry. Bren School of Environmental Science and Management (2016). http://www.esm.ucsb.edu/research/2016Group_Projects/documents/PataPlastFinalReport.pdf
  3. Outdoor Industry Association’s Priority Issue Brief: Microfibers. Outdoor Industry Association (2016). https://outdoorindustry.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/OIA-Priority-Issues-Brief-Microfibers-2016.pdf
  4. Primary Microplastics in the Oceans: a Global Evaluation of Sources. International Union for Conservation of Nature (2017). https://portals.iucn.org/library/sites/library/files/documents/2017-002.pdf
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