Environmental and Textile Scientists Combating Microplastic Pollution

By: Judith S. Weis

About a year ago, the network of former AAAS Policy Fellows was discussing a call for session proposals for the 2019 AAAS meeting, the theme of which was going to be interdisciplinarity – “Science Transcending Boundaries.” I had long been thinking that environmental scientists concerned about microplastics needed to interact with textile, materials, and fiber scientists, because the vast majority of microplastics in the environment are microfibers, which come off synthetic clothing in washing machines. I know that environmental scientists can find and describe the problem, but we do not have the skills to solve them. Textile scientists have the skills to re-engineer synthetic clothing so that they won’t shed (as many) microfibers.

I proposed this idea to the group, and it was received with enthusiasm. Margaret Murphy, another former fellow, who had spent her fellowship with EPA working on the microplastics issue agreed to organize it with me.

The proposal “Environmental and Textile Scientists Combating Microplastic Pollution” was accepted by AAAS for the meeting. Its description was as follows:

Plastic pollution caused by human activities is everywhere. Beaches covered with plastic bottles, bags, and straws attest to the problem. Microplastics, tiny pieces ranging from a few millimeters to microns in size, are less obvious, but ubiquitous. They have various sources, but the most abundant type in many areas are microfibers from synthetic textiles such as polyester, which can shed thousands of fibers when used or machine-washed. Many of these fibers are too tiny to be trapped in filters and they flow into sewage systems. Some are trapped by sewage treatment plants, but many enter aquatic systems where they number in the trillions or quadrillions. As they are plastic, they do not readily break down. Found everywhere, even in the deepest parts of the ocean, microplastics can attract chemical pollutants from the water and may be eaten by plankton and larger filter feeders such as clams and oysters. Microfibers and their attached pollutants are passed through food webs, and evidence is growing that eating microplastic harms the health of marine animals. The solution to microfiber pollution may lie in short- and long-term approaches: better filtration systems and the design of synthetic fabrics that do not shed fibers, or switching to natural or biosynthetic alternatives. This session brings together environmental scientists who study microplastic pollution and textile scientists who are developing new synthetic fabrics to discuss the problem and proposed solutions.

The final panel consisted of:

·      Dr. Chelsea Rochman, of the University of Toronto   (a “rock star” of microplastic research) Chelsea presented general information about microplastic sources, fates and effects, focusing on microfibers;

·      Dr. Melik Demirel, a materials scientist at Penn State spoke about the biosynthetic fiber he developed called Squitex, which is comparable to the silk found in squid ring teeth. Squitex, made from squid teeth proteins, is self-healing and completely biodegradable the protein; and

·      Sarah Edwards, Director of Eunomia Research & Consulting and Vice President of PWFP who explained a range of policy measures that could be used to reduce microplastics release including:

o   Development of standard test measure to quantify the release of microfibers from clothing;

o   Setting limits of microfiber release effectively leading to garments that shed the most being removed from the market;

o   Extended Producer Responsibility based funding for measures to capture microfibers in the washing machine or as a last resort in the programs to cover the cost

The session had a large interested audience with excellent questions and discussion, making it a huge success.

Following the session, the PR office of Penn State sent out some press releases about Melik Demirels’s work, which were picked up by a number of outlets, for example:   https://www.earth.com/news/biosynthetic-fibers-microplastics/. This is the sort of research that can lead to solutions.

The AAAS meeting was the start of a discussion that should continue. Only through multidisciplinary cooperation can the issue of microplastics begin to be tackled.

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