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Vicious cycle: Your clothes pollute the ocean. Here’s how.

A Vancouver Aquarium researcher is at the forefront of studying how microfibres shedding off clothing during laundry ends up in the ocean.

Dr. Peter Ross, left, director of the Vancouver Aquarium's Ocean Pollution Research Program and research assistant Stephen Chastain looks for microplastics in sea water samples through a microscope on Apr. 11, 2017.

Jennifer Gauthier / Metro Order this photo

Dr. Peter Ross, left, director of the Vancouver Aquarium's Ocean Pollution Research Program and research assistant Stephen Chastain looks for microplastics in sea water samples through a microscope on Apr. 11, 2017.

So you divert recyclables and organics from the landfill, bring reusable shopping bags to the grocery store and have phased out cleaning products with harmful chemicals in them.

Think you’ve cut out the most harmful environmental practices in your green-conscious home?

Think again.

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Vancouver Aquarium researcher Dr. Peter Ross is at the forefront of studying one of the lesser known but most prevalent ocean pollutants today and the source may surprise you.

“There’s kind of a smoking gun, if you will, that suggests clothing and textiles through laundry and waste water is releasing large quantities of fibres into coastal waters,” said Ross, the director of the Ocean Pollution Research Program at the aquarium’s Coastal Ocean Research Institute. “It’s really a pollutant like nothing I’ve worked on before. With other pollutants, you can take a sample from the environment and say I found ‘X’ concentration of mercury. In this case, there’s an infinite number of permutations in terms of shape, size, density, colour, additives and etcetera. It’s a very different world of ocean pollution.”

Synthetic fibres – like the polyester found in fleece jackets – make up as much as 80 per cent of the microplastics in oceans, though it’s not known exactly how much derives from clothing, according to Ross.

Samples taken from the Strait of Georgia show an average of 3,200 particles of microplastics per cubic metre of seawater, which are then ingested by zooplankton and fish at the bottom of the food chain.

Accumulations of microplastics have been found in the intestinal tracts of fish, birds and other marine animals, severely impacting their nutrition and health.

Simon Fraser University masters student Julie Dimitrijevic, a research assistant at the Vancouver Aquarium's Ocean Pollution Research Program, extracts microplastics from a sea water sample on Apr. 11, 2017.

Jennifer Gauthier/For Metro

Simon Fraser University masters student Julie Dimitrijevic, a research assistant at the Vancouver Aquarium's Ocean Pollution Research Program, extracts microplastics from a sea water sample on Apr. 11, 2017.

Washing a single item of clothing can release between 10,000 to 400,000 microfibres per cycle as it degrades over time and shreds in the laundry.

While the public is largely unaware of the issue, industry has taken notice.

In March, Ross partnered with Mountain Equipment Co-op to research the presence of polyester, nylon and acrylic fibres in the ocean and trace them back to the source.

MEC chief product officer Jeff Crook says the outfitter has been concerned about microfibres for several years but the industry has more questions than answers at the moment.

“When I’m around industry people, this is definitely bubbling up as a topic. ‘Do you know how much fleece sheds?’ ‘Does that kind of fleece shed more than that one?’” said Crook. “Everyone is sort of lit up on the issue but there are a lot of questions. Which is why our research with the aquarium, for us, is so important, because we get hard data that helps us map a course out how we proceed and make the situation better. This is one of those areas where we can make a difference.”

Ross is also working with the Metro Vancouver and Capital regional districts to see how wastewater treatment and filtration can be improved.

Attention to the issue has “really exploded” over the last five years, he said.

Anahita Etemadifar, research technician at the Vancouver Aquarium's Ocean Pollution, works with the FTIR spectrometer to analyze microfibres on Apr. 11, 2017.

Jennifer Gauthier/For Metro

Anahita Etemadifar, research technician at the Vancouver Aquarium's Ocean Pollution, works with the FTIR spectrometer to analyze microfibres on Apr. 11, 2017.

“This is a really interesting part of the research we’re doing because we’re talking to groups and stakeholders, people from different sectors and industries and without exemption we’re running into concerns,” said Ross. “There are school children asking us what can be done, there are homeowners asking us that question and Metro Vancouver and the Capital Regional District are wondering the same thing, as is industry. It’s getting into the global consciousness of politicians.

“So I think that bodes well but there is work to do.”

That work involves looking at every step of a microfibre’s journey, from washing machine to ocean.

The first step is to use industrial-grade washing machines to find out how much fibre certain types of garments shed.

Then the team studies how much of those fibres get past the water treatment system.

Finally, the team collects seawater samples from dozens of stations along the West Coast and takes those back to the lab in Vancouver.

Researchers then study the samples under microscopes, identifying and documenting how many microfibers are found in the ocean.

At each step, individual fibres are extracted and run through the same kind of scanner used by forensic investigators – to pinpoint the source of paint chips and other evidence at crime scenes – to positively identify the material and see how the fibres have changed structurally along the way.

“We want to know if that changes along the life course of a product, because if we’re in the ocean, we need to know how that product has changed going back to its source,” said Ross.

Marine biologist Elaine Leung educates kids about ocean health with her Sea Smart program and also organizes beach clean-ups for the Surfrider Foundation.

Jennifer Gauthier/For Metro

Marine biologist Elaine Leung educates kids about ocean health with her Sea Smart program and also organizes beach clean-ups for the Surfrider Foundation.

With a better understanding of microfibers and buy-in from industry and government, Ross hopes “we can help turn off the tap” on this increasing source of pollution.

Taking action: Elaine Leung

Doing something to protect oceans from a rising tide of risks seems daunting, but one Vancouver woman has made it her goal to harness the power of individual and community action.

Marine biologist Elaine Leung has spent 15 years researching endangered species around the world, only to see many of those animals go extinct during her career.

“I realized that conservation action doesn’t always happen when you’re talking to governments, the rate of change is just too slow,” Leung told Metro. “I believe so strongly in the power of individual action to make positive change that I decided to focus on that.”

Leung is a core volunteer for the Vancouver chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, helping organize monthly beach clean ups and leading its microplastic awareness campaign.

She also started the Sea Smart program, which goes into public schools to teach children about ocean health.

Sea Smart also runs after-school programs and outdoor summer camps at the beach, reaching hundreds of students Grade 1 to 4 every year.

Through these grassroots initiatives, Leung can reach a public that often doesn’t know how laundry impacts the environment.

“I would say the vast majority of people are still not aware [of microfabric pollution]. But we all know that it’s just not possible to completely reduce all these synthetic fibres in our products,” she said. “There are many ways to tackle this and I often think the way forward is for everyone to work together, recognize that we all contribute to the problem and take ownership of the actions we can take to help.”

Her most receptive audience tends to be her youngest.

“I tell kids there are all these different things affecting the oceans but the good news is there is something you can do about it, it doesn’t matter if you’re six years old or an adult,” she told Metro. “Parents tell me the kids go back home and are so excited to share what they’ve learned that they start teaching the parents.”

One girl was so moved she asked family and friends to donate to whale conservation instead of buying her gifts on her birthday, Leung said.

“It’s amazing how quickly these kids, once they’re interested in the topic, can embrace it and become environmental champions,” she said. “I always tell them, ‘You guys are the hope for the future of our planet.’ This is why our mission is to get kids excited about our oceans and environment. I see how much potential impact they can have.”

What you can do to cut down on microfibre pollution

  • Avoid unnecessary laundry. Remember that clothing doesn’t need to be washed every time it’s worn. Conserve water by waiting until there is a big load that needs washing.
  • Look into aftermarket solutions. There are special filters available that promise to capture microfibres in washer affluent. A cheaper alternative is a product like the Guppy Friend, a washing bag for synthetic clothing that prevents microfibres from being washed away with water during a cycle.
  • Look for clothing with organic fibres, which are more likely to break down in the environment and are less harmful to wildlife. If that’s not possible, buy the highest-quality clothing possible, as it will generally last longer and shed less.

How to get involved

The Great Canadian Shore Cleanup, a WWF Canada and Vancouver Aquarium initiative, is the largest conservation-based cleanup program in the country. Thousands of Canadians volunteer at hundreds of clean-ups throughout the year. To get involved, visit shorelinecheanup.ca.

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