Transcript: Podship Earth Episode 032: Polyester

JARED BLUMENFELD: Welcome to Podship Earth. This is your host, Jared Blumenfeld. This week, we're talking polyester. Well not just polyester, but any synthetic fabric from nylon to rayon to spandex all the way through to polypropylene. It all began back in the 1940’s in a Dupont lab.

1940’s AD: Today and for the years to come, the world looks for better things for better living through chemistry, the science that has played a major part in the perfection of practically everything we use. The science that has carried us beyond the machine age into a world of new materials that are not found in nature.

JARED BLUMENFELD: The production of synthetic materials started slow, and then came the seventies.

1970’s AD: All based on one very special pair of pants. In style, they are a classic, but they're made of the latest thing – woven texturized polyester. The price, just $13. You can even afford to start all over with these extraordinary pants.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Those same JC Penney, polyester bell bottom pants are still available for $13 from Goodwill on Haight street in San Francisco, and if you rush, you can use them as part of a scary Halloween costume. Many people thought that synthetic materials had reached their peak in the 1970’s, but it turns out it was just the beginning. Today, everything from yoga pants to running shorts to fleece jackets to you name it is made from plastic fibers. Here’s Roland Geyer, a professor of industrial ecology with the University of California Santa Barbra Brennan School of Environmental Science and Management.

 

ROLAND GEYER: It's important to remember that plastic and synthetic fibers are really only 65, 67 years old, so our grandparents, all they ever wore were natural fibers, clothing made from natural fibers and now it has almost reversed. So, in 2016, over 50 percent of the fibers produced worldwide were actually synthetic fibers and experts think that in the future it will gain an even larger market share. About six years ago with a global team of experts, we tried to quantify how much plastics enters the ocean in a given year. At the same time, increasingly, microfibers also showed up in sediment samples particularly and on the beaches, so now we actually decided that we want to study synthetic fibers. So, fibers made from plastic in particular in order to quantify exactly how much we make, how we use them, and how much end up in the oceans every year. So, there's a lot of research that needs to be done and so we're trying to add to that by just doing what is called a “material flow analysis.” Really follow fiber production all the way through the use phase. Hopefully quantify, estimate what happens to those fibers. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: What was the biggest surprise that you found in your research? 

ROLAND GEYER: Well, in terms of research on plastics, my biggest surprise is just the sheer quantity, the sheer amount of plastics we produce. And then once I started researching fibers, synthetic fibers, the sheer amount of synthetic fibers and also the growth rate. It's not just that we're making incredible amounts already, but this amount just keeps growing year over year over year. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Has this affected your own life doing this research? 

 

ROLAND GEYER: Well, yeah, I'm a label obsessive. I mean my family makes fun of me. I read labels like others read novels. I'm obsessed with what they say and what I can learn from it. All fibers, even including natural fibers, they have their own environmental issues like water use, like land use, other pollution issues with over fertilization. It's not as simple as simply saying, I'll just switch fiber or I simply switched brands and problem is solved.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Turns out that when we throw our dirty fleece into the washing machine, we're shedding more than our clothes.

 

NEWS: You might not know it, but in each load, your clothes release hundreds of thousands of tiny fabric fibers, many of which contain plastic. From the dirty washing water, they soon get into the environment, poisoning our waterways and the food chain.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: In the US alone, our washing machines are releasing up to 750,000 pounds of microfibers each day into rivers, lakes, and the ocean. And if that isn't cause enough for concern…

 

NEWS: It's a wild finding that there's something sinister hiding in your drinking water…microscopic plastic fibers. A study by the Data Journalism Website Orb Media found plastic in 94 percent of the water that it tested in the United States. Microplastics have been shown to absorb toxic chemicals that are linked to cancer. Then, they release them when consumed by fish or humans. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: In case you're jumping up to buy emergency supplies of bottled water, the same study found that plastic fibers are in 93 percent of bottled water produced by 11 of the world's largest brands. These pesky tiny plastic fibers have been found in 73 percent of fish caught in the northwest Atlantic, in beaches around the world and even in Arctic ice. And here's where it gets even more personal. The average person ingests over 5,800 particles of synthetic debris each year, most of which are plastic fibers. In order to understand what the hell is going on and what we can do about it, I start by talking with Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff, who was the executive director of Five Gyres, an organization fighting against the global plastic pollution crisis. Rachel also founded and hosts Mommy Greenest.com, a resource for healthier living and less judgment. Rachel also is working with the California Coast Keeper Alliance on a campaign to tackle microfiber pollution.

 

RACHEL LINCOLN SARNOFF: The first time I heard about microfiber pollution, that scared the hell out of me, because I realized that there was plastic coming from my clothes into the water that potentially I was drinking. And then through my work with Five Gyres, we went really deep into that issue, and that got even more terrifying

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: What does “going deep” into that issue mean?

 

RACHEL LINCOLN SARNOFF: So, we worked on a study with the San Francisco Estuary Institute to really look at what was coming out of wastewater in San Francisco. What was coming out was plastic microfiber pollution. So, I had known that there was a problem, but I didn't really understand the extent of it. And just to kind of put it in perspective, one sample took them 40 hours to analyze. That's how many tiny, tiny, tiny pieces of microfibers were in that sample. I think the results of the study, which still hasn't come out, will be really impactful.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Why would it take 40 hours to do one sample?

 

RACHEL LINCOLN SARNOFF: So, I think oftentimes when we think about science, we think about it in labs with super powered Jimmy Neutron microscopes, right? And the truth is that often it's just someone who's actually physically using a microscope, counting the number of fibers in a sample. And that's what really took so long, and it took so long because there were so many.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Now there's a whole new thing, plastic fibers that are in everything from drinking water to San Francisco Bay. It just feels overwhelming.

 

RACHEL LINCOLN SARNOFF: I think it absolutely feels overwhelming, but I think that it's even more important that we figure this out. It's not just one type of plastic that we need to be aware of. It's all plastic. It's how we view plastic. It is how plastic has become this ubiquitous substance that makes up our entire lives, and that we view as disposable, so we need to look at it in that frame and I don't think we're doing that yet.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: The Gap, H & M, Walmart, Costco, like there's tons of brands out there that don't seem to care about this. Like how can consumers push them to care more?

 

RACHEL LINCOLN SARNOFF: I don’t think we can say that those brands don't care. I think we have to encourage brands to own it like Patagonia has. You know, Patagonia had an opportunity to take a study that showed that their fleece was shedding plastic particles into the water table and they could have buried that study, but instead they chose to use it as part of their sustainability platform in their profile. And I think that's brilliant. Are we smarter because of Patagonia's study and how they shared it? If we can make the case to other manufacturers that this is the right way to go, then they will follow suit. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: To find out the backstory behind what Patagonia is doing, I go to the headquarters in Ventura, California to meet with Elissa Foster, who is the senior manager of Patagonia's product responsibility division. Patagonia sells sustainable outdoor clothing. The company was founded by Yvon Chouinard in 1973. In 1996, the company began sourcing only organically grown cotton. In 2016, Patagonia adopted a set of wool principles that guide the treatment of animals as well as land use practices and sustainability. Patagonia commits one percent of total sales or 10 percent of its profits, whichever is more, to environmental groups. Patagonia is a certified B Corporation. These are businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. I start by asking Elissa when she first heard about the microfiber issue.

 

ELISSA FOSTER: In 2011, a researcher came out with a paper showing that they were finding these fibers all over coastlines and then linked the fibers back to washing machines and garments and home laundering. That was 2011 and the researcher was actually doing research fellowship in Santa Barbara. So, I got to meet with him, and at the time, it was just this new issue that no one was really that familiar with. Oh, and it just didn't get a lot of traction. And then fast forward about three years and there was an article that came out that was calling out some specific apparel brands around the microfiber issue. And then we've been involved ever since.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: A lot of businesses when they get bad news about their products, like fossil fuel companies and climate change, simply try and hide the truth. With Patagonia, you did the complete opposite.

 

ELISSA FOSTER: Patagonia has a really long history of caring for the environment and also along the way of doing our business, we come across these issues that show that what our business is doing might be causing environmental harm. And when we learn about those issues, what we do with them, we look into them from a very logical and scientific perspective. And then we try and find ways to solve that problem and address the issue. Our switch to organic cotton is a really great example of that. In the mid-nineties, we learned that conventional cotton was connected to the overuse of pesticides and fertilizers causing harm to workers, the environment, waterways. And we looked into it and looked for a solution there. And we found organic cotton. And this is that again. We knew if it was connected to our products, we had to understand it, and the more we've dug into this issue, the more we've learned about it and the more we've learned, it's a much broader issue than just a specific type of apparel garment.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Tell us about shedding, namely how many microfibers fall of different types of clothes and different settings. 

 

ELISSA FOSTER: We have learned that all of these garments that we wear everyday shed. It doesn't matter what they're made of, they're all shedding. And there are different points along the way where we can work to minimize that shedding, and we hope to engage with our fellow colleagues at other brands and then also with our customers to implement solutions. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, at what point did you go to management and say, we need to fund a study to really look at how much is shedding? 

 

ELISSA FOSTER: We pitched it to the leadership and they were on board and they were like, yeah, we need to learn more about that. And this is a really good way to do that. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And what did you find out? 

 

ELISSA FOSTER: We learned through lots of washing that indeed a lot of all of the garments were washing, whether they were Patagonia garments or other governments that we purchased from outside were all shedding. And then, you know, we looked at the dryer and the lint trap in the dryer and you collect all that lint after you dry a load of laundry and basically that's quite similar to what's happening in the washing phase of home laundering.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And were there any characteristics that you were kind of surprised at in terms of walk things shed at what levels? 

 

ELISSA FOSTER: I think we assumed that fleece products, they had become sort of the poster child for this issue and we found that they aren't any worse than other garments that are out there.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: How are you looking at solutions?

 

ELISSA FOSTER: So, one place to start is of course the manufacturing of the garment, and that's I think where Patagonia really has a lot of expertise, and an opportunity to minimize the shedding. And we're going to be looking into different things like yarn construction and fabric construction, fabric coatings, the different processes that fabric goes through before it's made into a finished garment to identify ways to minimize shedding. The next step is for consumers to really understand what they're buying and what their clothes are made of and if they're buying products that are of a high quality that are going to last a long time. The next step once you buy that garment is to really think about how you're washing it and there's an opportunity always to wash less. We've found that front load machines shed less than top loading machines. We've also found that there are a lot of aftermarket filters that are available out there for consumers to purchase that they can use to filter the washing machine affluent before it enters into our wastewater treatment plants, and so there's opportunities at that home laundering phase to minimize shedding. The next step is when it gets to the wastewater treatment plant and that is at a municipal level. Not a lot of individual control over that specific phase in the lifecycle, but it's key nonetheless to think about because there's a lot of opportunity to capture the fibers while they're capturing sludge and any other waste products that are coming out of our homes and into waste water treatment.  And so there could be an opportunity to be there. And then the last piece is once it gets into the ocean, to really understand what kind of harm the fibers might be causing, where they're settling, where they're staying in the water column and what are opportunities for us to minimize the harmful fibers that are entering the environment. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: You're looking at developing a shed ability standard. What does that mean? 

 

ELISSA FOSTER: So, we've created a very efficient shed test that we can do at Patagonia’s fabric lab where we test all the fabrics before we put them in product. And what we're hoping is that by testing and comparing a certain fabric to another one that might have a different finish process to it or a different yarn construction, we will be able to identify what results in more shedding, what results in less shedding. Once we do that on a number of fabrics, we will start to understand what that range is of shedding from garments, and start to understand what is a very great and low shed rate. And then what does maybe a very high shed rate that we're hoping to reduce. So, we are at the very early stages of it and expect to be learning a lot in the upcoming months.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So even when we are capturing at the wastewater treatment plant, microfibers, often those are land applied. Tell us a little bit about that.

 

ELISSA FOSTER: Well, what we've learned from research at wastewater treatment plants is if they're actually capturing quite a bit of the fibers that are entering their system, they capture that in the sludge that they're retaining and not releasing into the environment and waterways. And there’s a lot of different things that can be done with it. But what we've learned in California is that often that sludge is applied to agriculture, and not human food agriculture, but other forms of agriculture. And the concern there is that if we've done such a great job of capturing all these fibers in the sludge and then we go lay it out on the open land, we don't then know what happens. Does it sink into the soil? Could it have any effects on plants or is it going to run off again back into the ocean when it rains or when the land is irrigated?

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: You're an Infinitesimally small part of the world garment industry. There are millions and millions of garments being produced every year that aren't Patagonia. How do we encourage those brands to get more involved in this dialogue?

 

ELISSA FOSTER: We are small in the whole scheme of things, but I will say that this conversation I've been having with many of my peers at other brands and the outdoor industry has been very engaged in this. We're partnering on research with REI and Arch’teryx and MEC. I know this conversation has been brought to the sustainable apparel coalition, which is a coalition of apparel brands beyond the outdoor industry that want to be more environmentally and socially responsible, and so this dialogue is happening there as well, and so I do think that there are a lot of companies that are thinking about this and engaging in the conversation and there's a lot of opportunity to get more brands engaged and I know that other brands are already engaged, so it makes me hopeful that as an, as an industry, as a larger apparel industry, we will be working on this together. It's been quite the journey I have to say.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: The voluntary efforts undertaken by Patagonia go well beyond what the rest of the $214,000,000,000 apparel industry is doing on this critical issue. As a result, environmental groups like Californians Against Waste, The Story of Stuff and Surfrider are pushing for legislation. I meet up with Melissa Romero with Californians Against Waste. The group was founded in 1977 and is one of the nation's most effective nonprofits advocating for the implementation of waste reduction and recycling policies. Melissa received a BA in environmental science and policy at Cal State University, Long Beach where she worked with the university zero waste taskforce. Melissa, how did your organization get involved in this issue?

 

MELISSA ROMERA: I first heard about microfiber pollution after researching textile waste, and so we decided that this issue made a lot of sense to begin to tackle.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, you're an environmental lobbyist in Sacramento, California’s State Capitol. I thought lobbyists were the bad guys.

 

MELISSA ROMERA: Yeah, I think I definitely also had that negative connotation of what a lobbyist was before starting this job. I

always assumed that lobbyists meant industry related issues and starting my job, I realized there are lobbyists for everything, like everything you could possibly think of. I'm really proud to be able to represent Californians Against Waste and work on issues that I really care about. So yeah, it's definitely a really cool place to be. I feel like I'm in a position where I can help make the most change that I can actually see happen and unfold in front of me, which is why I'm sticking around and why I'm having so much fun in this position.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, this year you helped sponsor a few pieces of proposed legislation on microfibers.

 

MELISSA ROMERA: So the microfiber bill that we helped support this year would have required all clothing that is predominantly polyester material, so 50 percent or more polyester would have ever been required to be labeled so that consumers could read something on the tag that says this garment sheds plastic microfibers when washed and you know, trying to give people some sort of short term solution like hand washing or just hopefully steering consumers to more natural products. So, it was really focused on consumer education and it was really a way for us to start the conversation about microfiber pollution in the legislature. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And why did you think that was a good place to start? 

 

MELISSA ROMERA: It made the most sense to start as far upstream as possible with this issue because it really is at the core, it is an issue with the actual textiles that we're using and there has been a lot more polyester and synthetic materials used in the recent years and it's growing exponentially and so it made the most sense to start with the target, so to speak, being the manufacturer of the product.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Why is it important to hold manufacturers responsible first? 

 

MELISSA ROMERA: It's really important to hold manufacturers responsible to some extent because they're the ones that are causing this issue, which is microfiber pollution at the source and if we don't focus on them at all and just focus on people paying for it at the waste water treatment level or at only the wash washing machine level, it really doesn't put the onus on the right entity. And in this case, when we focus on the manufacturers, that's really where we can make the most change and the most difference in terms of source reduction of the problem. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And that that seems true of waste tissues generally. 

MELISSA ROMERA: If we only worked on, you know, litter cleanup, for example, litter abatement, then we wouldn't actually be stopping the problem at the source. We would just be making it okay. And making ourselves feel a little bit better about co causing the pollution in the first place.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, what happened to the bill? Was It successful? 

 

MELISSA ROMERA: So, the bill was successful in the way that we were able to start the conversation. A lot of members of legislature now aware of the issue and as are their staff, which is really, really important to move forward. We did get some press coverage on the issue, which was important for consumer education. Even though the bill didn't end up passing, it did get to go through to two policy committees and ultimately, though did not make it to a vote on the assembly floor, it did make it to that point to where we were able to have conversations with all of the assembly members, so it was a really great educational opportunity.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Your organization has worked on many landmark laws like banning plastic bags in California. Did they take a long time to pass?

 

MELISSA ROMERA: So, all of those issues were definitely multi-year efforts and a lot of that has to do with just creating a space for stakeholders to come together to come to a conclusion that everyone can agree on. For plastic bags, it took about a decade and it was a decade of local governments taking action with local ordinances and bag bans.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: California governor Jerry Brown just signed a law requiring restaurants only give out straws if requested. This straw law really captured the public imagination with the straws. 

 

MELISSA ROMERA: It was something that was easy to grasp and understand and also something that everyone could relate to and could take action on. So, it really was a way to open up the conversation about the larger problem of plastic pollution, which was positive because now we have a lot more people talking about it and a lot of those articles that talk about plastic straws are also touching on the broader issue of recycling and plastic pollution in general. So, it's been positive in that way.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: How are you dealing with the deluge of plastic in your own life?

 

MELISSA ROMERA: It really is difficult in the world that we live in today to avoid plastic and to, you know, avoid the types of plastic that right now in some areas aren't being recycled anymore. And so, it really is going to take a lot of source reduction and a lot of private companies taking actions on these issues. Because it is a really big challenge for an individual to actually take on living a plastic free life because it's really just shoved in our faces every day and it is part of so many activities that we all want to participate in.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: People looking at California see there's a large majority of Democrats. They would just think, you know

what? This stuff must just be easy to pass.

 

MELISSA ROMERA: A lot of times it's difficult for some Democrats to vote on things because they represent areas where an industry makes up some of their jobs and you know, those are all valid points, but it really is about weighing the pros and the cons of some of these things. Does it really make you know, a whole lot of difference and benefit to society to have 10 people working in a trash incinerator versus actually recycling that material and not polluting the community that that trash incinerator is cited in. So, it really is, you know, helping those legislators try and see the pros and cons, but sometimes the more moderate members tend to see the industry side a lot easier. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Is it going to come back at the next legislative session? 

 

MELISSA ROMERA: I don't think it's going to go away anytime soon. It really is a very large issue with a lot of points of intersection with different industries. There's a huge opportunity to make change and all of those different areas, but it also makes it very complicated because there are so many different ways to tackle this and microfiber pollution is such a huge problem in terms of the actual volume of microfibers being released into the environment.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Governor Jerry Brown just signed law requiring the Ocean Protection Council Developers’ strategy for tackling micro fibers. What can listeners do as do at the local level to keep up the pressure.

 

MELISSA ROMERA: So, what you could do at the local level is encourage your local elected officials to pass local ordinances that tackle microfibers, you can call your representatives every time there's a vote happening about microfibers.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Back with Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff, I find out that she's just about to install a filter on her washing machine at home.

 

RACHEL LINCOLN SARNOFF: When I first learned about the problem with microfibers, if I wanted to know what I could do about

it. I can hand wash, I can wash less, I can't get a new washing machine because I can't afford it right now, but I can put on a filter which will capture a lot of those microfibers. So that is where I am with my personal solution. You know, I think that there are bigger picture solutions that I still am pushing for and we all need to think about. But in the meantime, what can we all do as individuals? You know, a filter for microfibers is one of those things.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: What are the bigger picture solutions that you're pushing for? 

 

RACHEL LINCOLN SARNOFF: There's been a lot of passing the buck with this issue. You want washing machines that, just like driers have some sort of capture mechanisms. So, you're grabbing those microfibers and you're able to take them out of that filter and put it into the trash.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Do you think 10 years from now more washing machines will have microfiber pollution filters built into them when you buy them?

 

RACHEL LINCOLN SARNOFF: If I have anything to do with it, yes, absolutely. I mean there was a time when we dried our clothes with dryers that didn't have lint filters, and I looked so hard to try to find legislation that mandated little lint filters in dryers and it just didn't exist. That was a voluntary act that the dryer manufacturers took. Now, they took that act because houses were burning down. Clearly there's a market advantage to putting a filter in your dryer. So, I think our job as advocates is to do the same thing when it comes to plastic, and when it comes to washing machines, let's make the case and buy from brands that do the right thing.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, what's the next step in getting microplastic filters in every washing machine sold?

 

RACHEL LINCOLN SARNOFF: I think that what we need to show is that proof of concept. We need to show that we can install these, they can work, they can do their job, and they're not going to screw anything up. So, that's where I think cities come in. There are tons of laundry being done by municipal prisons and hospitals and you know, buildings that are supportive, that are part of the city infrastructure. If we can install filters there, then we can have our proof of concept to be able to show to the general consumer, look, if this works in a hospital that's doing laundry 24/7, it's going to work in your home where you do three loads a week.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Does California have the ability to help move this issue?

 

RACHEL LINCOLN SARNOFF: If we can get some sort of legislation passed in California that mandates that we have filters on our washing machines, just like we have filters on our dryers, then we can make that a reality not just in California, but in the entire world. You know, I see a world where in 10 years we are not looking at the volume of this problem because you can't capture everything, right? So, we also need manufacturers to shift in the way that they're manufacturing. We need consumers to look at their behavior, stop buying and throwing away their clothes.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Thank you to Roland Geyer, Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff, Elissa Foster, and Melissa Romera for educating us on the craziness that is polyester microfiber pollution and for helping us think through the solutions. Approximately two out of seven billion people in the world have access to washing machines, leaving 71 percent who still hand wash their clothes. This number is changing by the day as more people have access to washing machines. While clothing manufacturers are working out how to make clothes that don't shed as much microfibers, we need to up the pressure on washing machine makers to put filters in devices from the get go. Current estimate suggests that these filters add about $7 to the cost of the new machine. I recently installed an aftermarket filter on my washing machine at home and was stunned at how quickly it filled up with the strands of microplastic. My big takeaway is that microfiber's really stink. Next week, we delve into the biggest topic of them all, religion. From concepts of dominion over nature to the Pope’s latest cyclical on climate change to the meditation practices of the Brahma Kumaris, we discuss how religion may be the planet's last best hope. If you liked the podcast and want to support our show, please share Podship Earth with your friends and family. Thank you so much for being part of the Podship Earth journey. From the entire Podship Earth crew, sound engineer Rob Spate, producer Nancy Ferranti, executive producer David Kahn, and me, Jared Blumenfeld, have a great week and remember that washing your clothes less is now a good thing.