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Ocean Wise Microfiber Partnership

Solution-oriented research for marine microfiber pollution

About the Partnership

In 2017, the Ocean Wise Plastics Lab launched the Microfiber Partnership, a solution-oriented research initiative that brings together researchers, the apparel industry, and government agencies concerned about the sources and impacts of microfiber pollution in the ocean. Central to this research initiative was the design of a dedicated washing machine test facility, the development of new methods to sample liquid laundry effluent and municipal wastewater, and the characterization of microfiber samples using microscopic image analysis and Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometer (FTIR).

The work of the Partnership

Microfiber pollution is an issue that involves many processes and stakeholders. Microfiber Partnership was formed to inform science-based solutions to microfibers through research on their sources, transfer to and fate in the ocean. The research pillars of this initiative consist of:

Microfiber release from textiles – studies on textile design and production, consumer practices, and filtration devices as solutions for reducing microfiber emission.

Microplastics in municipal wastewater facilities – studies to determine microplastic removal efficiency, discharge and variation over time in support of engineering solutions and waste management best practices.

Microplastic Forensics – research to develop Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometry (FTIR) based tools to identify and track the fate of microplastics in the environment.

Researching Microplastics at Washing Machine Lab

How is home laundry impacting ocean health? Cutting-edge science at Ocean Wise is investigating just that.

What are plastic microfibers and why are they a problem?

Synthetic microfibers in the ocean are type of emerging contaminants known as microplastics – microscopic particles originating from plastic-based or -containing products (typically defined as synthetic particles < 5 mm). Like all marine plastics they are of concern due to their ubiquity, persistent nature and potential for environmental damage. Microfibers are frequently the dominant type of microplastic in studies of marine environments and biota. Diverse marine species from plankton to mammals have been found to accidentally ingest these particles either directly or through uptake of contaminated prey. Exposure to high levels of microplastics, including microfibers, has been shown to cause intestinal tract blockage and malnutrition of filter-feeding species in lab studies. Microplastic impacts in native environments are not well understood and are an area of intense research.

Where do microfibers originate from?

Synthetic fibers are common constituents of textiles and are released from clothing during domestic laundry. While this varies greatly depending on many factors, such as the type of garment and laundry conditions, research has shown that some materials can lose billions of fibers in a single wash. Wastewater treatment facilities, where available, can capture much of these fibers and other microplastics (> 90%) into sludge. Nonetheless, microfiber emissions with treated wastewater on annual and geographical scales are substantial because of the large volumes of polluted water treated. For instance, our research suggests that in Canada and the USA as many as 3.5 quadrillion microfibers or 878 tonnes could be released into the aquatic environment from households via treatment plants—that's the equivalent weight of 10 blue whales. Microfibers retained in municipal sludge pose an additional environmental concern since treated sludge (biosolid) is commonly applied to land as agricultural fertiliser. Other suspected and not well researched sources of fibers include release of fibers through wear and tear of clothing and furnishing (air pathway) and fibers shed from fishing lines and ropes.

Phase 1 research (completed)

The Microfiber Partnership was launched in 2017 with apparel firms MEC, Patagonia, REI and Arc’teryx, as well as Metro Vancouver and Environment and Climate Change Canada. As part of this Phase 1 research, we studied a variety of textiles at our custom-built washing machine test facility in Vancouver to better understand the factors underlying the production of microfibers. Results revealed a wide range in fiber shedding of diverse consumer materials tested, ranging from a loss of 9.6 mg to 1,240 mg, or an estimated 9,777 to 4,315,371 microfibers per kg, of textile washed (1). Our pilot research on a secondary wastewater treatment facility in Vancouver has found an annual discharge of 30 billion microplastics, of which 60% were fibers (2). Also carried out was a long-term environmental weathering study on 110 textile materials exposed to air, ocean and wastewater. The results of this research will be shared in 2020.

Phase 2 research was launched in January 2020 with the support of MEC, Patagonia, REI, Arc’teryx, Laudes Foundation, Aritzia, Joe Fresh, Cotton Inc and Outdoor Industry Association and Angel Foundation.

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