Tiny plastic fibers taken from a water sample in Blue Hill Bay in the gulf of Maine. 85 percent of the human-made material found on shorelines around the world are microfibers, and match the types of material, such as nylon and acrylic, used in clothing. Photo: Marine Environmental Research Institute

By Mary Catherine O'Connor
27 October 2014

(The Guardian) – Ecologist Mark Browne knew he’d found something big when, after months of tediously examining sediment along shorelines around the world, he noticed something no one had predicted: fibers. Everywhere. They were tiny and synthetic and he was finding them in the greatest concentration near sewage outflows. In other words, they were coming from us.

In fact, 85% of the human-made material found on the shoreline were microfibers, and matched the types of material, such as nylon and acrylic, used in clothing.

It is not news that microplastic – which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines as plastic fragments 5mm or smaller – is ubiquitous in all five major ocean gyres. And numerous studies have shown that small organisms readily ingest microplastics, introducing toxic pollutants to the food chain.

But Browne’s 2011 paper announcing his findings marked a milestone, according to Abigail Barrows, an independent marine research scientist based in Stonington, Maine, who has helped to check for plastic in more than 150 one-liter water samples collected around the world. “He’s fantastic – very well respected” among marine science researchers, says Barrows. “He is a pioneer in microplastics research.”

By sampling wastewater from domestic washing machines, Browne estimated that around 1,900 individual fibers can be rinsed off a single synthetic garment - ending up in our oceans.

Alarmed by his findings, Browne reached out to prominent clothing brands for help. He sought partnerships to try to determine the flow of synthetic fibers from clothing to the washing machine to the ocean. He also hoped his research might help develop better textile design to prevent the migration of toxic fibers into water systems.

The reaction wasn’t what he expected.

He contacted leaders in the outdoor apparel industry - big purveyors of synthetic fabrics - including Patagonia, Nike and Polartec. But none of these companies agreed to lend support.

“Perhaps it’s my pitch,” Browne joked. “We want to look for new, more durable materials that do not emit so much microplastic.” [more]

Inside the lonely fight against the biggest environmental problem you've never heard of


  1. Catz LeBlanc said...

    the statement that microfiber mop head covers are eco-friendly makes me question after reading this! still searching for best eco mop. glad I read this in the never ending quest to decrease my impact on environment from being an American.  


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