MEC and Vancouver Aquarium researchers team up to study apparel-linked microplastic pollution

Click to play video: 'B.C. study into potentially harmful microfibres' B.C. study into potentially harmful microfibres
WATCH: The Vancouver Aquarium is teaming up with Mountain Equipment Co-op to try to find out whether we send dangerous pollutants into the ocean every time we wash our clothes – Mar 14, 2017

As the issue of plastic pollution of the global water systems is gaining more attention worldwide, a team of local researchers is joining forces with a clothing retailer to help understand and reduce the effect of microplastics found in synthetic fabrics on marine environments.

Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) and Vancouver Aquarium researchers announced Tuesday they will be cooperating on the study of the effects of microplastics on B.C.’s water systems.

The study, led by Dr. Peter Ross, head of the Ocean Pollution Research Program at Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre, and his team, has been ongoing for years.

But today MEC announced it will be providing a $50,000 grant to the researchers to help them focus on pinpointing the source of microplastic fibres that are polluting the world’s oceans.

READ MORE: Why our oceans are choking on our garbage and how we can stop it

Microplastics are the barely visible plastic particles that can either be pre-manufactured or may result from the breakdown of larger plastic chunks.

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They can also originate from synthetic textiles used by clothing manufacturers.

Virtually all clothing sheds fibres through normal wear and tear. But when cleaned in household washing machines, fibres can also be pumped into drain pipes along with water.

Home washing machines aren’t presently designed to filter microfibres from wastewater. Little is also known about how effective municipal wastewater facilities are at capturing these fibres before they enter waterways, where they can potentially cause harm by being ingested by marine organisms – another important area of study for Dr. Ross and his team.

“We know that the microplastics are a global problem,” Ross told Global News. “We have been able to document widespread presence and fairly shocking numbers of microplastic particles in sea water in northeastern Pacific Ocean. We have already documented that these particles are being taken up by zoo plankton and other creatures. We and other groups are presently looking at microplastics in shellfish and marine mammals, trying to figure out what these microplastic particles mean for the ocean food web.”

READ MORE: Plastic microbeads will be banned in Canada, effective mid-2018

On its website, MEC admits they know that polyester, nylon and acrylic textiles used in MEC-label garments and those used by other brands they sell degrade over time and inevitably produce synthetic microfibres.

“With an increasing focus on microplastics, the opportunity now is to obtain real data about its exact sources, mechanisms and concentrations and to correlate those findings to what’s found in oceans,” the company says.

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Ross says they already know larger plastic pieces cause problems for marine mammals who ingest them.

“Now we are trying to worry about what it means when those plastic products break down into smaller pieces,” Ross said. “Does it mean the same kind of threat to small creatures at the bottom of the food chain?”

For its part, MEC says there is no side-stepping the fact that making technical garments, using them and disposing of them all have an impact on the environment.

“We’re not looking for a simple solution to a complex problem,” the company says. “We believe a collaborative approach that brings together industry, scientific research, local governments and consumers is the best way to make lasting progress and to build comprehensive solutions.”

Ross says in his almost 30 years as a marine toxicologist, he has never seen as much attention paid to a marine pollutant as he is seeing with microplastics.

“We are seeing an appetite for information on the effects of microplastics and interest in scientific research, and we are seeing the likes of MEC coming to the table and saying — we are concerned about these, we want to know where these are coming from and we want to know if any of our products are contributing to this problem.”

The money donated by MEC will go toward studying specific sources of microfibre pollution, by material type and discharge pathway, for one year.

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MEC hopes to use the information to re-engingeer textiles to reduce fibre shedding.

The company also says they plan to share the knowledge they are hoping to acquire through the study with the rest of the apparel industry.

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