Your favorite fleece might be causing harm to our environment

By Guest Blogger, E. Hughes
Pembroke Hill School

I am always cold.  Always.  So, my Patagonia fleece has become something of a wardrobe staple.  I wear it everywhere: to school, on errands, to sports practices, to sleep, to dinner with the family, and, to my mother’s dismay, to special events. (What can I say, desperate times call for desperate measures.)  Anyway, you can imagine my concern when I discovered that my beloved Patagonia fleece was contributing to the pollution of our oceans.

New studies have shown that an alarming number of microfibers from synthetic clothes are making their way from washing machines to the oceans and into the digestive tracts of marine life.  These microplastics are found in abundance near wastewater treatment plants, where, despite the 98% of plastic fragments that are removed from the wastewater, 65 million pieces of microplastic escape the filters and pour into our oceans every day.  After these toxin-filled fibers are released into the waterways, they are ingested by fish that, ultimately, end up on our plates.

Fibers caught on a 20 micron filter (20 millionths of a meter) from the effluent after washing one Patagonia jacket.

Research began in the early 2000s, when a group of graduate students studying microplastics in marine environments took samples of sediment from a beach in southwestern England.Expecting to find degraded pieces of marine plastic, the students were surprised to see that most of the plastic fragments were fibrous.  One student furthered the study by testing sediment from beaches around the world. He found that samples taken from beaches located near wastewater treatment facilities had an astonishingly high concentration of microfibers.

These fibers eventually grabbed the attention of big-name brands like Patagonia, which went on to commission a study to see just how harmful their iconic polyester fleeces are.  After testing a variety of their fleeces, their nylon shell jacket, and a budget jacket of undisclosed origin, they found that the average jacket released 81,317 fibers with every wash.  Some jackets released as many as 250,000 microfibers in a single load, and the budget jacket, which was of questionable quality, shed 170% more fibers than the Patagonia jackets.  Based on the estimate that 100,000 Patagonia jackets are washed every year worldwide, the number of plastic fibers being released into our waterways annually is equivalent to the amount of plastic in 11,900 grocery bags.

Patagonia’s study also found that the number of fibers shed is directly related to the type of washing machine used, as well as the age of the garment.  Age increases fiber loss by roughly 80%, and jackets washed in a top-load washer shed five times more microfibers than those washed in front-loaders.  Although the effectiveness of washing machine filters is currently being investigated, the extent of the problem will continue to increase with the predicted rise of global washing machine usage, projected to increase from 2 billion consumers in 2010 to 5 billion consumers by 2050.


Front-loading washing machines induce less fiber loss than top-loading machines.

In hopes that the dilemma posed by microfiber shedding can be addressed through better design, Patagonia, along with other apparel companies, is currently researching new fabrics, as well as new fabric construction.

If you, too, are discouraged by the impact of one of your wardrobe staples, here’s what you can do: fill each load of laundry to maximum capacity, use fabric softener, wash at a low temperature, use liquid detergent rather than powder, minimize how frequently you wash synthetic clothing made out of the biggest offenders (polyester and nylon), and consider looking into a front-loader if you’re in need of a new washing machine.  Most importantly, don’t buy what you don’t need!  If and when you do have a need for synthetic clothing, be sure to keep quality and durability in mind.  Ultimately, remember that everything has an impact on the environment, so be sure to make informed decisions when shopping and limit purchases to necessity only.


The Guppy Bag, now sold by Patagonia, is a mesh laundry bag that catches 95% of fibers shed.


Sidenote: limiting the washing of synthetic clothing is an impeccable excuse when it comes to avoiding workouts and any activities that could ultimately result in another load of laundry.


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