Is the outdoor industry adding to microplastic pollution?

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Microplastic pollution in waterways presents more questions than we have answers.

When Bureo co-founder David Stover sailed into the Bahamas with a 5 Gyres expedition, they weren’t near one of the known ocean-going garbage patches, and yet every scoopful of water turned up small pieces of plastic trash.

“It’s an ocean of plastic,” said Stover, whose company recycles fishing nets to make skateboards and sunglasses, sparing the ocean that detritus. “Even the bluest waters had little plastic everywhere.”

He called the concept of retrieving that plastic and converting it to something useful a bit of “misdirection” because so much of it is contaminated. “We have to begin looking upstream at how to prevent plastic from getting into the oceans in the first place,” he said.

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David Stover (left) and Kevin Ahern co-founded Bureo which upcycles discarded Chilean fishing nets into sunglasses and skateboards. Photo by Florian Schulz.

What role the outdoor industry has played in contributing to this problem—and how to move forward in fixing it—is part of the work being done by the Outdoor Industry Association’s taskforce on microplastic fibers. These pieces of synthetic and natural fibers, fractions of a millimeter in diameter and less than 5 millimeters, are thought to wash out of garments, specifically fleece, but whether that’s during manufacture or in consumers’ homes is one of many questions still in play.

“It’s just such a new issue that we’re missing a lot of data on how to solve the problem and how much the outdoor industry is responsible for,” said Beth Jensen, director of corporate responsibility for the Outdoor Industry Association.

Polartec CEO Gary Smith said independent research indicates their manufacturing process’s filtration system prevents them from contributing to the problem during garment production. In fact, they found more plastic in water taken into their U.S.-based facilities than in the water they put back into the system.

But knowing what it costs Polartec to filter out those fibers—which are then collected and sold for vehicle insulation—he wondered if the manufacturers of less expensive fleece use a similar process.

“I just worry a lot about unregulated, low-cost, synthetic fabric manufacturers and where that volume is going, because the volume there is much greater,” he said, suggesting the need for independent, third-party oversight.

For Patagonia, the problem cued heartache.

“We wouldn’t have started making the snap-tee with recycled soda bottles if we would have known eventually it was going to lead to microplastic pollution,” said Corey Simpson, communications coordinator with Patagonia. “It was just such a heavy hit to realize, wait a minute, since ’96, we came up with something that we thought was a huge help—the recycled content in these products—then to realize this was adding to an issue—ocean pollution—that we’ve been fighting for so long.”

The company independently funded research from the University of California Santa Barbara to better understand the problem, but no solution has been readily apparent.

“Whoever gets there first, our big hope is nobody should horde that information,” Simpson says. “We need to get that out to the industry as fast as possible.”

This story first appeared in the Day 4 issue of Outdoor Retailer Daily.

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