New federal report on microfiber pollution spotlights textile and fashion industries

A new draft report to Congress from the US Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on behalf of the Interagency Marine Litter Coordinating Committee cites textiles and the fashion industry as major sources of microfiber pollution in the environment. While the draft report acknowledges the uncertainty of how microfiber pollution affects the environment and human health, the report’s authors recommend that the textile and fashion industries—along with manufacturers of clothes washers and dryers and personal care products—design the products theirs to prevent the release of microfibers into the environment.

The draft report was required to be developed in accordance with the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act, passed in 2020 on a bipartisan basis to address problems related to marine debris and plastic in the ocean. It has been made available for public comment, which closes on October 17, 2022.

The report highlights how microfibers have been observed throughout oceans, lakes and other bodies of water across the globe, and are also commonly found in air, soil, animals and drinking water and food for human consumption. He cites several studies that have raised concerns that microfibers themselves can damage animal tissue, cause intestinal blockages and inflammation in certain organisms, and that they can increase exposure to chemicals and heavy metals.

Laundry has been identified as a major source of microfibers because almost no residential washing machines in the United States have filters to trap microfibers from entering wastewater systems. The report also cites textile manufacturing, air-air dryers, improperly disposed cigarette filters, and wastewater treatment plants and biosolids as other sources of microfibers that can spread to the the whole environment.

According to the report, textile waste accounted for 5.8 percent of all municipal solid waste in 2018, up from 3.9 percent in 2000, and that more than 11 million tons were landfilled in 2018. The report calls on the textile industry and fashion to reduce waste and to develop manufacturing processes that reduce microfibre emissions before consumption and to design fabrics that shed little during use or cleaning. It also calls on the EPA to review and update the Clean Water Act effluent limit guidelines for the textile industry. Separately, the EPA had already announced plans to update the effluent guidelines for the organic chemicals, plastics and synthetic fibers point source category, with a proposed rule expected in September 2023.

The report encourages guidelines and incentives to reduce microfiber discharges and emissions from washers and dryers, personal care products, and the food and beverage industry, showing the apparent effectiveness of some aftermarket filters used to capture microfibers during the cleaning process. , as an example (although the need for additional research into the use of filtering technology is noted).

The report also recommends additional research to fill other data gaps, particularly regarding the prevalence of microfibers in all environmental media and potential impacts on human health and the environment. The report’s authors also note that there is no single definition for the term “microfiber,” which has made it difficult for scientists and policymakers to communicate consistently when discussing the scope of the problem and how people and the environment are affected. For example, some restrict the term to mean synthetic fibers such as polyester or nylon, while others include natural fibers such as wool that are chemically treated and semi-synthetic fibers derived from natural materials such as cellulose. Adding to the confusion, the report explains that the textile industry has used the term microfiber since the 1950s to describe a type of ultrafine synthetic fiber used in a variety of products and the term fiber fragment to mean the part of the fiber that breaks off or sheds from the fabric. Different scientists and organizations also use different size measurements to distinguish between microfibers and other fibers.

The report recommends that the federal government adopt an official definition of the term microfiber, pointing to similar efforts by the California State Water Resources Control Board and the European Chemicals Agency as possible models, as follows: Microfibers are solid, polymeric, fibrous materials: to which chemical additives or other substances may have been added, and which have at least two dimensions that are less than or equal to 5 mm, length to width ratios and length to height ratios greater than 3, and a length less than or equal to 15 mm. Excluded from the proposed definition are natural fibers that have not been modified by chemicals.

With retail and consumer products companies increasingly focused on their “ESG” metrics, it will be important for them to monitor how the government continues to address issues like microfibers. A standardized definition of “microfiber” could shake up the way companies are currently measuring their environmental impact, particularly those involved in textile and equipment manufacturing, and laundry operations (eg hospitality, commercial laundries). Companies already making moves to reduce the release of microfibers should pay close attention to the follow-up from this report so that such reduction efforts are not lost. Finally, the concerns raised by the report are not unique to consumer-facing companies, but also affect the entire supply chain, so informing supply chain partners of what comes next will be essential.

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