Man-Made Fabrics Have State Lawmakers Vying for Warning Tags

(Bloomberg) -- Your polyester shirt may soon come with a warning label.

Lawmakers in California and New York have proposed state bills this year to raise awareness of a problem few consumers may have heard of -- synthetic fabrics shedding microfibers into the water system. Reminiscent of the plastic microbeads that were banned from cosmetics, garments made with polymer-based cloth can release as many as 1,900 microfibers per wash that eventually end up in waterways, one study shows.

But research is still at the early stages, and few are in agreement about what the best response is. The bills proposed in those two states suggest requiring that all new clothing made of more than 50 percent synthetic material carry an additional removable tag that reads: “This garment sheds plastic microfibers when washed.” The retail industry is against those proposals, claiming they wouldn’t solve anything -- and could create even more costs and problems.

“There’s a lot of questions we don’t know the answers to,” said Nate Herman, senior vice president of supply chain at the American Apparel and Footwear Association, an industry trade group. “The concern with legislation is that it’s getting ahead of the science.”

Waterway Concerns

Microfibers may pose a threat to waterways and aquatic life, according to activists and supporting research. Less than 5 millimeters long, they’re not filtered by washing machines or water treatment plants and have been found in everything from bottled water to sea salt to fish.

Like plastic microbeads washed down the drain in cosmetics -- which President Barack Obama signed a law to phase out in 2015 -- the fibers are about the size of plankton, and many marine organisms may ingest the material when they’re feeding. They may end up in people as well. About 83 percent of drinking water samples tested around the world contained microplastics, according to a study released last year.
 
Apparel tags or stickers would be an opportunity to raise awareness that microfiber pollution is a problem in the first place, said Rachel Sarnoff, executive director of the plastic pollution advocacy nonprofit 5 Gyres Institute. Sarnoff’s organization encourages consumers to wash their clothes less often, use efficient front-loading washers and add another filter designed to catch microfibers to their machines.
 
Her group isn’t trying to get consumers to give up synthetic fibers altogether, but to be more aware of their possible environmental reach.

“There are certain places you’re not going to give up those synthetics,” Sarnoff said. “If you do wear synthetics, it’s good to be aware of their impact, especially when you wash them in a machine. We have to look at ways to control the shedding.”

Bill Response

The New York bill was introduced May 8 by assemblymember Felix Ortiz, who has also tried to eliminate single-use plastic bags in the state. It’s pending with the environmental conservation committee.

California assemblymember Richard Bloom, the author of that state’s bill, also wrote the state act that led to the plastic microbead ban. He said the response from the apparel and retail industry representatives to his bill has been “fairly negative,” with some even denying the problem exists.

Retailers say they want more research on the issue. Laws mandating labels in New York and California would effectively force the companies to label all garments they sell nationwide due to the size of those states. That’s costly, said Herman of the American Apparel and Footwear Association. And dissuading consumers from buying synthetic fabrics doesn’t acknowledge the environmental impacts of other materials, like the volume of land and water required to grow and harvest cotton, he said.

Fabric or Tires?

It’s not even clear that fabrics are the most to blame. It could be that garments become more prone to shed as they age, or that top-loading washing machines agitate pieces into releasing fibers. Car tires have also been linked to shedding microplastics, which could be a big contributing factor to the problem.

“They’re not offering a solution in labeling requirements; it just gives a bad name to polyester clothing without solving the issue,” Herman said. “A label doesn’t educate consumers.”

Retailers prefer the approach presented in Connecticut legislation or a similar tactic suggested in a competing California bill -- increasing research or forming a working group to look into the issue.

Bloom and environmental activists acknowledge synthetic fabrics like polyester will never be banned -- consumers need them for everything from fire safety to swimsuits.

“We’re all wearing polyester clothing, myself included,” Bloom said. Longer term, “this is an issue that demands creativity -- this is an issue we don’t solve by adding a hangtag.”
 

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