Illustration courtesy of treehugger.com vis The Story of Stuff's
The Story of Stuff's new film explains how polyester yoga pants, fleeces, and even underwear are responsible for rampant plastic pollution.
Earlier this month, the Story of Stuff released its newest video on the problem of microfibers. The three-minute film offers a short yet powerful explanation of how the miniscule bits of synthetic fibers washing off our clothes are creating an environmental catastrophe in the oceans.
The microfiber pieces are smaller than a grain of rice, measuring less than 5 millimeters in length, which mean they cannot be filtered out by washing machines or even waste water treatment plants. They get flushed out into waterways and oceans, where they act like little sponges, attracting and absorbing other toxic chemicals around them, like motor oil and pesticides. Eventually they climb their way up the food chain, until they reach human bellies at mealtime.
Stiv Wilson writes: “The sheer scale of the problem is immense—in the United States alone, it is estimated that there are 89 million washing machines doing an average of nine loads of laundry a week. Each load can emit anywhere from 1,900 fibers to 200,000 per load, a nightmare scenario.”
Ocean conservation group Rozalia Project estimates that the average U.S. family sends the equivalent plastic of 14.4 water bottles into public waterways per year via washing machines.
So what’s a concerned individual to do?
It’s a tough problem to solve – much more difficult than getting plastic microbeads banned (the Story of Stuff’s last big project). This is a problem that affects everyone, especially considering than 60 percent of the fabric manufactured globally in 2014 was polyester, and that the athletic wear sector is the fastest-growing one in the fashion world.
In his article, “How do you solve a problem like microfiber pollution?”, Michael O’Heaney sees three types of solutions. One is targeting washing machine manufacturers, whether changing the regulations on new production and retrofitting old washers to include better filters.
“Washing machine manufacturers have expressed both technical and political concerns about these proposals: whether filters fine enough to capture fibers would be able to efficiently process wastewater and, more to the point, whether they should be financially responsible for fixing the problem in the first place.”
Second, wastewater treatment facilities could be upgraded to filter out all microfibers. This, however, would not address the problem of post-processing, plastic-laden sludge getting spread on farmers’ fields as fertilizers, which is currently the practice.
Third, clothing manufacturers could be pressured to take responsibility for the full life cycle of their products. While the industry has known about this problem for at least five years, there has been virtually no movement on it, nor public acknowledgement (aside from Patagonia’s highly publicized admission last fall). As the film points out, without getting clothing companies on our side, personal shopping choices will have minimal impact.
The Story of Stuff is taking the latter approach in its attempt to increase awareness, spark outrage, and get as many people as possible demanding accountability and transparency from clothing manufacturers. You can join the fight by signing the online petition and sharing the video far and wide.