Ocean plastics pollution has become a crisis, with some predicting that by 2050 there will be more plastic by weight in the world’s oceans than fish. But FIT took a step toward a different future by taking a group of Textile Development and Marketing students on an October boat trip in Jamaica Bay to learn about the problem of disposable plastics, microplastic fibrils, and other marine textile debris from both synthetic and natural textile products and fibers.
The Textile Ocean Plastics Pollution Initiative (TOPPI) is a student-led (by Mari Kawamura and Louise Ford) effort that exposes students to scientific research, and enables them to explore the response from textile companies, brands, and retail organizations.
While the group didn’t see much marine life, they also didn’t see much trash, except for a Doritos bag floating by. The real value of the trip was in the presentations by professors as the American Princess sailed around Jamaica Bay. Three FIT professors—two from Textile Development and Marketing, Jeff Silberman and Dr. Ajoy Sarkar; and Dr. Arthur Kopelman, a SUNY Distinguished Service Professorof Science—and Dr. Richard Venditti, from North Carolina State University’s department of forest biomaterials, discussed different aspects of microfiber plastic pollution, and ways that students can help create solutions as they move forward in their careers.
Among the information they shared with the students about plastic and textile pollution were the following facts:
- There are five trillion plastic pieces in the world’s oceans
- Only about seven percent of plastics get recycled, so five billion tons of plastic are in landfills or the environment
- 7 million tons of plastics go into the ocean each year; none of it degrades
- Large plastic debris eventually breaks down into microplastics, tiny pieces that are ingested by fish and marine mammals
- Eighty percent of fish sold in markets contains some plastic
- Eighty billion pieces of clothing are purchased per year worldwide; fabric is the number one source of microfibers, which are shed during production and laundering
- Global consumption of fibers is broken down into: 52 percent polyester, 25 percent cotton, and 23 percent all other fibers
- Polyester dominates the textile industry; polyester sheds less than cotton and rayon
- The average U.S. household does eight to 10 loads of laundry per week; one load can contain 1,900 microfibers
- Washing a single synthetic jacket releases 1.1 grams of microfibers
- Many fabrics are treated with toxic chemicals such as flame retardants, compounding the problem when microfibers are shed
- Polyester-cotton blends release significantly less microfiber during laundering than 100 percent polyester or acrylic do
- Microfibers are seven times more likely to be released by top-loading than front-loading washers, because of greater agitation
- Once in the ocean, microplastics can become coated with toxins, resulting in bacteria and other microorganisms that don’t naturally occur in the water
- Students can help solve the plastics pollution crisis; part of solution might lie in the development and use of natural, biodegradable fibers