Yoga pants, fleece may be harm­ing wa­ters

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Jen­nifer Kay

key largo, fla.» Com­fort­able clothes are emerg­ing as a source of plas­tic that in­creas­ingly is end­ing up in the oceans and po­ten­tially con­tam­i­nat­ing seafood, ac­cord­ing to Gulf Coast re­searchers launch­ing a two-year study of mi­cro­scopic plas­tics in the wa­ters from south Texas to the Florida Keys.

The project, led by the Mis­sis­sippi-Alabama Sea Grant Con­sor­tium, will rely partly on vol­un­teers in coastal cleanup events. It also will ex­pand a year’s worth of data col­lected around Florida that pre­dom­i­nantly found mi­cro­scopic plas­tic fibers — or mi­crofibers, which are shreds of plas­tic even smaller than mi­crobeads — flow­ing down bath­room sinks and shower drains.

Yoga pants, fleece jack­ets, sweat-wick­ing ath­letic wear and other gar­ments made from syn­thetic ma­te­ri­als shed mi­crofibers when laun­dered. Waste­water sys­tems flush the mi­crofibers into nat­u­ral wa­ter­ways, even­tu­ally reach­ing the sea.

“Any­thing that’s ny­lon or polyester, like the fleece-type jack­ets,” Univer­sity of Florida re­searcher Maia McGuire said.

When McGuire set out to study the kinds of plas­tic found in Florida wa­ters, she ex­pected to mostly find mi­crobeads — the brightly col­ored plas­tic spheres the U.S. govern­ment banned from rin­se­off cos­metic prod­ucts in 2015 be­cause of the po­ten­tial threat to fish and other wildlife.

In­stead, McGuire pre­dom­i­nantly found mi­crofiber com­ing from places most peo­ple don’t con­sider dan­ger­ous to marine life: their clos­ets.

“I to­tally thought we were go­ing to be find­ing mi­crobeads and (big­ger) frag­ments,” McGuire said. “What do we do about it is the mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar ques­tion. The con­sen­sus seems to be that we need im­prove­ment in tech­nol­ogy in wash­ing ma­chines and waste­water-treat­ment plants in com­bi­na­tion to try to fil­ter these fibers. There’s just so much we don’t know.”

Stud­ies of the Great Lakes and New York Har­bor and sur­round­ing wa­ter­ways found high con­cen­tra­tions of plas­tics pol­lu­tion, in­clud­ing mi­crobeads. McGuire’s data from Florida wa­ters, com­piled from 1-liter sam­ples run through fil­ters fine enough to catch mi­crofibers missed by the trawls used in the larger stud­ies, adds to the grow­ing re­search fo­cused on plas­tic pieces that de­grade but never dis­ap­pear.

Other re­cent stud­ies show that mi­crofibers can end up in the stom­achs of marine an­i­mals, in­clud­ing seafood such as oys­ters. Experts in­creas­ingly sug­gest that man­u­fac­tur­ers of wash­ing ma­chines — not just body washes or scrub­bing de­ter­gents — may need to be tar­geted next to re­duce plas­tic waste in oceans.

The Gulf Coast study will use McGuire’s method­ol­ogy to de­ter­mine the preva­lence of mi­crofibers and other mi­cro­scopic plas­tics.

A plas­tic “garbage patch” like one cir­cu­lat­ing in the Pa­cific Ocean is un­likely in the Gulf of Mex­ico, but the re­gional study may re­veal ar­eas par­tic­u­larly prone to the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of plas­tics, said Caitlin Wes­sel of the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Marine De­bris Pro­gram.

“There hasn’t been a lot of base­line study cov­er­ing mi­croplas­tics, and the stud­ies that have been done haven’t been as wide-reach­ing,” Wes­sel said. “We’re hop­ing to use the data as a base­line but also find sources of mi­croplas­tics and find out what types of mi­croplas­tics are the big­gest is­sue in the Gulf.”

It’s not yet known how much mi­crofibers hurt the health of marine an­i­mals that in­gest them, or whether their ac­cu­mu­la­tion up the food chain is harm­ful.

“The big con­cern is we know the amount of plas­tic in the ocean is in­creas­ing, and in­creas­ing some­what ex­po­nen­tially at this point. It’s got chem­i­cals in it, chem­i­cals stick to it, an­i­mals eat it. We know a lot of the larger an­i­mals have im­pacts from larger plas­tics, so we think there’s an ef­fect on smaller an­i­mals (from mi­croplas­tics),” McGuire said.

The emerg­ing data has prompted cloth­ing com­pany Patag­o­nia — which makes fleece jack­ets and other ap­parel from syn­thetic ma­te­ri­als — to sup­port re­search into the preva­lence of mi­crofiber pol­lu­tion and pro­mote in­for­ma­tion for con­sumers about ways to min­i­mize mi­crofiber shed­ding in laun­dry.

Con­sumer-fo­cused ef­forts — such as Patag­o­nia’s outreach, liquor gi­ant Bac­ardi’s de­ci­sion to stop adding plas­tic straws and stir­rers to cock­tails at com­pany events, Mi­ami Beach’s ban on Sty­ro­foam con­tain­ers or the fed­eral mi­crobeads ban — can help slow the rate of mi­crofibers and other plas­tics adding up in the oceans, but the pol­lu­tion also needs to be ad­dressed at its source and at waste­water treat­ment plants, Wes­sel said.

“It would be re­ally great if the wash­ing ma­chine com­pa­nies would get on board and come up with a fil­ter to trap these mi­crofibers,” Wes­sel said. “I think there’s a big push right now — no­body re­ally dis­agrees that marine de­bris is an is­sue that needs to be ad­dressed.”

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