New Federal Report on Microfiber Pollution Spotlights Textile and Fashion Industries

A new draft report to Congress of the US Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, commissioned by the Interagency Marine Debris Coordinating Committee, cites the textile and fashion industries as the top sources of microfiber pollution. While the draft report acknowledges the uncertainty about how microfiber pollution affects the environment and human health, the report’s authors recommend that the textile and fashion industries – along with manufacturers of washers and dryers and personal care products – develop their products in a way that microfibers not released into the environment.

The draft report had to be developed under the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act, enacted on a bipartisan basis in 2020 to address issues 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 in oceans, lakes and other bodies of water around the world, and are also commonly found in the air, soil, animals, and drinking water and food for human consumption. It cites several studies that have raised concerns that microfibers can injure even animal tissue, cause intestinal obstruction and inflammation in certain organisms, and increase exposure to chemicals and heavy metals.

Clothing laundering is identified as the primary source of microfibers, as almost all home washing machines in the United States have filters to keep microfibers from entering sewer systems. The report also cites textile manufacturing, drying clothes with machines that vent to the atmosphere, improperly disposed of cigarette filters, and sewage treatment plants and biosolids as other sources of microfibers that can spread into the environment.

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According to the report, textile waste made up 5.8 percent of all municipal solid waste in 2018, up from 3.9 percent in 2000, and more than 11 million tonnes were landfilled in 2018. The report calls on the textile and fashion industry to reduce its waste and develop manufacturing processes that reduce microfiber emissions before use and design fabrics that shed little during use or laundering. 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 previously announced plans to update the effluent guidelines for the organic chemicals, plastics, and synthetic fibers point source category, with a rule proposal expected in September 2023.

The report encourages policies and incentives to reduce microfiber discharges and emissions from washing machines and dryers, personal care products and the food and beverage industries, and points to the apparent effectiveness of several after-market filters used to capture microfibers during the laundry process an example (although the need for additional research on the use of filter technology is noted).

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The report also recommends additional research to fill other data gaps, particularly related to the prevalence of microfibers in all environmental media and possible 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 magnitude of the problem and how it impacts people and the environment. 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 naturally occurring 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 describe the part to denote the fiber that breaks off or breaks off scales of fabric. Different scientists and organizations also use different size measurements to differentiate between microfibers and other fibers.

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The report recommends that the federal government adopt an official definition of microfiber and points to similar efforts by the California State Water Resources Control Board and the European Chemicals Agency as potential models: 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-to-width and length-to-height aspect ratios of 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 chemically modified.

As retail and consumer goods companies become more focused on their “ESG” metrics, it will be important for them to monitor how government continues to address issues like microfiber. A standardized definition of “microfiber” could change the way companies currently measure their environmental impact, particularly those involved in textile and appliance manufacturing and laundries (e.g. hospitality, commercial laundries). Companies that are already taking steps to reduce microfiber releases should consider the follow-up to this report so that such reduction efforts are not wasted. Finally, the concerns raised by the report not only affect consumer-facing businesses, but also impact the entire supply chain, making it crucial to educate supply chain partners on next steps.

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