Paul Andersen: A ‘dirty, little secret’ of our outdoor culture
The turtleneck I’m wearing is toxic and not just because I skied 10 miles in it. My synthetic shirt not only exudes a manly whiff of BO, it emanates plastic microfibers that are in our water, our food and in the air we breathe.
My shirt — plus microfibers from running shorts to yoga pants to fleece jackets to packaging — can cause harm to ocean ecosystems. Microfibers are ingested by sea creatures and then impact human health by being consumed by humans.
Science doesn’t yet know the full extent of the negative impacts of microplastic pollution on aquatic habitats and organisms, but current research suggests physical, chemical and biological impacts are felt throughout the food chain. This includes leaching of toxic chemicals and eventual starvation of host organisms.
It’s daunting to think that our coveted Patagonia shirts, REI underwear and Arc’teryx jackets are degrading the environments where outdoor sports take us. While these companies produce microfibers, they are addressing the serious challenge of making apparel that is not only fashionable and functional but safe and non-toxic.
A friend who works for REI at the retail level recently prodded me for a column about microfibers because he’s having pangs of conscience for selling clothing that produce these pollutants.
“The issue of microfiber pollution is irking me greatly,” he emailed. “It is, of course, everywhere, from water samples in Antarctica, to soil samples in Canyonlands and in the air we breathe. The single greatest cause is washing our high-tech wonder clothes and anything polyester. Even if you capture it through filters, you still have to dispose of it somewhere where it can re-enter the environment. It feels like the dirty little secret of our outdoor culture.”
Except that it’s not little and it’s not so secret. Patagonia openly reports, “There is a ton of plastic making its way into our oceans every year, … an estimated 8 million metric tons, to be specific. But it’s not all fishing nets, plastic straws and water bottles. Mounting evidence suggests that tiny pieces of plastic are building up in our waterways.”
The source is the clothing we outdoor enthusiasts have discovered for its lightweight warmth, flexible stretch and wicking qualities. It’s not just the manufacturing and wearing of our trendy outdoor uniforms, it’s the washing that does the damage.
“Every time we do laundry, hundreds of thousands of microfibers are released into the water,” warns Patagonia. “Microfibers are tiny strands of fabric, smaller than the width of a single piece of hair.”
According to studies, synthetic fibers make up approximately 92% of microplastic pollution found in near-surface seawater samples from across the Arctic Ocean. About 73% of those fibers are polyester and resemble fibers used in clothing and textiles.
Washing the stink out of active outdoor clothing is aromatically convenient, but now that we know the role that textiles, laundry and wastewater discharge has in the contamination of the world’s oceans, there is a downside: Marine scientists have found a prevalence of plastic microfibers in Arctic Beluga whale intestines.
Wool appears to be less damaging since natural fibers biodegrade, which is why half of my outdoor apparel is warm and comfortable merino. Compared to shirts I still own from the ’70s — what we used to call “polystinktex” — wool saves on both microfibers and body odor.
So here’s how to reduce these troublesome byproducts, the unintended consequences of popular outdoor apparel: Keep gear longer and reduce demand for fabrics. Buy only what you need and make it high quality for the least impact possible. Patagonia claims to be the highest, but wool is the best, in my book.
Go to a front-loader washing machine and cut microfibers by seven times that of top-loaders. If you really want to cut your impact, install a permanent washing machine filter. Wash less often and wear garments more than once. If pants or jackets get muddy, wipe them with a rag.
Wool has good odor resistance, so, until your spouse and friends begin to vehemently object to being around you, resist washing and keep wearing. And if you get hassled in the gondola, just paraphrase Descartes: “I stink, therefore, I am.”
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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