A new study finds that plastic pollution is not just a problem for the world’s oceans. It’s everywhere – including in the air, where tiny fragments known as microplastics can be carried by wind and rain to places as remote as national parks and wilderness areas. The study, published earlier this month in the journal, Science, says more than 1,000 tons of it per year are landing in protected areas of the Western United States.
It’s also possible that some of the microplastics come from visitors to those areas, whose outdoor clothing and camping gear may be part of the problem.
Outdoor retailers, including Kent-based Recreational Equipment Inc., are working to address the issue. The popular co-op has been funding research on microfibers that include microplastics since 2017. Sustainability manager Greg Gausewitz says it’s a quickly emerging topic that REI wants to understand.
“And minimize any contribution to it and then help find solutions for the broader industry,” Gausewitz said.
He says all products have an environmental footprint and the co-op works to understand that footprint. They use product sustainability standards to evaluate and elevate sustainability across all that the co-op offers. Gausewitz emphasized that outdoor retailers are only a fraction of the problem — all apparel manufacturers and also those who make furniture, carpets and tires also are contributing to the loads of microfibers and microplastics that end up in the environment. But REI wants to be proactive.
Part of the research they fund is into filters that can be used in washing machines and dryers to keep microfibers out of wastewater and the air. One of the most recent grants they made went to the lab run by Monica Arienzo at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada. She pitched her idea after finding microplastics in remote areas (and snow) around Lake Tahoe.
Arienzo is developing a filter that can be used to prevent microplastics from everyday laundry from flying into the air. REI awarded $10,000 to support the research for a trap, to be installed on the outside of people’s houses.
“Basically it would be very similar to a lint trap. Only you don't have to change it after every dryer cycle," Arienzo said. "Maybe every month you would go out there and clean out the trap and then reinstall it on the outside of your house.
“So it's a really nice potential solution.”
She’s working with a nonprofit to test the new traps, which they plan to deploy after July 4.
But Gausewitz says REI and its partners also are zeroing in on how manufacturing can affect the amount of microplastics that end up in the environment. They are evaluating various textiles based on what they’re made of and whether they’ve been chemically or mechanically treated — for example, to make them softer.
“We're looking at how those different characteristics of the fabric might contribute to the fabric shedding more or less," Gausewitz said. "And as we learn more, we will take that into account to make our products in a way that reduces the amount that they shed.”
Gausewitz says REI already has walked away from some materials based on initial findings that they shed more microfibers than others. They hope their work will influence other retailers and manufacturers to follow suit.