New federal report on microfiber pollution sheds light on textile and fashion industries

A new draft report to Congress by the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on behalf of the Marine Debris Interagency Coordinating Committee cites textiles and the fashion industry as the primary sources of microfiber pollution in the environment. Although the draft report acknowledges the uncertainty about the impact of microfiber pollution on the environment and human health, the report’s authors recommend that the textile and fashion industry, as well as manufacturers washing machines and dryers and personal care products, design their products to prevent the release of microfibers. in the environment.

The draft report was to be developed in line with the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act, enacted in 2020 on a bipartisan basis to address issues associated with marine debris and plastics 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 in oceans, lakes and other water bodies around the world, and are also commonly found in air, soil, animals, 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 some organisms, and that they can increase exposure to chemicals and heavy metals.

Clothes washing is identified as a major source of microfibers, as almost no residential washing machine in the United States has filters to capture microfibers entering waste water systems. The report also cites textile manufacturing, drying clothes with air-venting machines, improperly discarded cigarette filters, sewage treatment plants, and biosolids as other sources of microfibers that can spread in the environment.

According to the report, textile waste accounted for 5.8% of all municipal solid waste in 2018, up from 3.9% in 2000, and more than 11 million tonnes went to landfill in 2018. The report calls on the industry textile and fashion industry to reduce waste and develop manufacturing processes that reduce pre-consumer microfiber emissions and design fabrics that shed little during use or washing. It also calls on the EPA to review and update the Clean Water Act effluent limit guidelines for the textile industry. Moreover, the EPA had already announced plans to update the Effluent Guidelines for the Point Source Category of Organic Chemicals, Plastics and Synthetic Fiberswith a rule proposal expected in September 2023.

The report encourages guidelines and incentives to reduce microfiber discharges and emissions from washing machines and dryers, personal care products and the food and beverage industry, highlighting the apparent effectiveness of several aftermarket filters used to capture microfibers during the washing process, as an example (while noting the need for further research on the use of filter technology).

The report also recommends further 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 authors also note that there is no single definition for the term “microfiber”, which has made it difficult for scientists and policy makers to communicate consistently when discussing the extent of the problem. and how humans and the environment are affected. For example, some limit the term to 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. Further adding to the confusion, the report explains that the textile industry has used the term microfiber since the 1950s to describe a type of superfine synthetic fiber used in a variety of products and the term fiber fragment to refer to the part of the fiber that comes off or fabric sheds. 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 potential 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 less than or equal to 5 mm, length/width and length/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.

As retail and consumer products companies increasingly focus on their “ESG” metrics, it will be important for them to monitor how the government continues to address issues such as microfibers. A standardized definition of “microfiber” could disrupt the way companies currently measure their environmental impact, especially companies engaged in textile and appliance manufacturing and laundry operations (e.g. hospitality, commercial laundries) . Companies that are already taking steps to reduce microfiber release should consider following up on this report, lest those reduction efforts go to waste. Finally, the concerns raised by the report do not only affect consumer-facing businesses, but also impact the entire supply chain, so it will be essential to inform supply chain partners of supply of what will follow.

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