One day last summer, the sailboat American Promise set off from a dock near the Brooklyn Bridge in search of unusual prey in the Hudson River: tiny pieces of plastic, much thinner than a strand of hair.
"I surveyed thousands and thousands of kilometers of ocean. We found microfibers in nearly 90 percent of the samples, and in every sample we found fibers, they were the majority of particles we identified," said Amy Lusher, a British-based microplastics researcher and a co-author of a 2014 study of microplastic pollution in the Northeast Atlantic Ocean.
Microfibers are part of the larger problem of microplastic pollution, which has gained attention in recent years as tiny pieces of plastic — usually defined as smaller than five millimeters, or about the size of a single piece of short-grain rice — accumulate in surface waters around the globe. Microplastics generally refer to small fragments of plastic that result from the microbeads used in such items as cosmetics and toothpaste — the latter burnish teeth to make them whiter — and from the breakdown of bags, bottles and other plastics that make their way into our waterways.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a giant, soupy collection of marine debris, is the most famous manifestation of the problem, but tiny plastics are turning up just about everywhere scientists look, including the Great Lakes and Antarctica.
Looking at the food chain
What the enormous stream of microfibers means for the health of the world’s waterways — and for the marine animals living in them — remains unclear. The limited research on the topic suggests that marine organisms — with smaller animals being the most vulnerable — are ingesting the fibers, which leads them to eat less food, potentially harming their growth prospects and survival rates.
“If you’ve got plastics in your stomach and you can’t get rid of them, you eat less,” said Andrew Watts, a scientist at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, who published a study last year suggesting that microfibers reduce the growth — and possibly the survival — of crabs essentially by interfering with their consumption of real food. “We saw that in the worms, crabs; we’ve seen it in the langoustines study as well.”
Watts said it’s possible that the fibers also pick up and transport chemicals with them, and once animals eat the fibers, they are vulnerable to the effects of any chemicals they’ve also ingested.
Researchers are still trying to determine whether these effects climb up the food chain and reach humans who eat seafood. They also want to know what plastic fibers mean for drinking water and larger marine animals.
“As a research community, we’re still in the really early stages of figuring out what the effects of microplastics are on organisms in the environment,” Watts said.
Only in recent years have researchers realized that synthetic clothing — including yoga pants, fleece jackets and some dress suits — was also a major contributor to the microplastics problem. A 2011 study looking at the composition of microplastics found on shorelines around the world first raised the alarm, saying that microfibers dominated the plastic debris they found and seemed to be coming from clothing being washed.
In response, Patagonia, which produces hugely popular fleece and other outerwear using synthetics, commissioned another study to better understand the problem.
“We were faced with this issue, and we wanted to try to understand from scientists what exactly our contribution was to the problem,” said Jill Dumain, director of environmental strategy at Patagonia.
The research, published in June, found that a single synthetic fleece jacket released as much as 250,000 microfibers, or 2.7 grams — about the weight of a Ping-Pong ball — when washed in a machine. The study also found that top-loading washing machines cause more shedding than front-loaders, that older garments shed more than new ones and that higher-quality garments shed less than lower-quality ones.
A more recent study found that acrylic garments in particular may release more than 700,000 microfibers each.
What drives these variations is still unclear and is part of what Patagonia plans to continue studying. In the meantime, the company is looking for solutions that could mitigate the problem, including product redesign to reduce fabric degradation and discussions with the appliance industry to incorporate some kind of apparatus into laundry equipment — possibly like the lint catchers that are built into dryers — that would keep fibers from being discharged into wastewater. “We’re open to any and all solutions to this problem,” Dumain said.
“A plastic world”
The American Promise’s Hudson River trip was part of an effort by the nonprofit Rozalia Project to see how pervasive microfibers have become in U.S. waterways.
The researchers were collecting water samples every three miles along the river to document the types and concentrations of microfibers. They were hoping as well to figure out how the fibers might be entering and moving along the river — looking to see whether there were concentrations, for example, near population clusters or near wastewater treatment plants.
Abby Barrows, a microplastics researcher for the nonprofit Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation who is analyzing the American Promise water samples, said microfibers were turning up in most of the samples she’d processed so far.
She’s not surprised: “We live in a plastic world.”
Josh Kogan said the Hudson River effort, like other citizen scientist projects, is collecting data that may help fill in some research gaps — and thinks it may also help the public see a connection between human activities and this type of pollution. “It helps to tell the larger story about plastics in our surface waters, how they get there and how citizens are directly involved in this particular issue,” said Kogan, the Trash Free Waters program coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 2, which includes New York, New Jersey and Puerto Rico. “No matter what you wash, you are going to discharge fibers.”
The Rozalia Project is working to develop a “microfiber catcher” that consumers will be able to throw into their washing machines, trapping the fibers inside the appliance rather than sending them out to sea in wastewater, said Rachael Miller, a co-founder of the group.
“We see [microfibers, unlike microplastics from soda bottles, bags, cosmetics and the like] as something that can’t be regulated away,” Miller said. “Synthetic fibers have allowed us to love winter and skiing.”
As the sailboat sets out from Brooklyn, Miller holds up a prototype of the catcher. It looks like a hollowed-out version of the dryer ball designed to keep clothes wrinkle-free, but with little plastic teeth running across the middle. She said preliminary testing of an early design showed that it reduces the microfibers discharged from each laundry load by about 30 percent, but there’s still a lot of product refining and testing to do. Miller hopes to have the ball available by spring.
Unfortunately, Barrows said, the microfiber catcher is not going to completely solve the problem, even if it does help somewhat.
“Working in this field of research, it can be really depressing,” she said. “I open up a box of water — it’s from some beautiful place in Palau, and it’s just full of plastics. Or it’s from Antarctica, and I think there’s definitely not going to be anything in here. And it’s just full of fragments. I haven’t seen a sample that doesn’t contain an alarming amount of plastic.”