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Inside the lonely fight against the biggest environmental problem you’ve never heard of

In 2011, an ecologist released an alarming study showing that tiny clothing fibers could be the biggest source of plastic in our oceans. The bigger problem? No one wanted to hear it

by Mary Catherine O’Connor

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Ecologist Mark Browne takes samples from the shoreline. His pioneering work on microfiber waste has received little support from clothing brands. Photo: Mark Browne

Ecologist Mark Browne knew he’d found something big when, after months of tediously examining sediment along shorelines around the world, he noticed something no one had predicted: fibers. Everywhere. They were tiny and synthetic and he was finding them in the greatest concentration near sewage outflows. In other words, they were coming from us.

In fact, 85% of the human-made material found on the shoreline were microfibers, and matched the types of material, such as nylon and acrylic, used in clothing.

It is not news that microplastic – which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines as plastic fragments 5mm or smaller – is ubiquitous in all five major ocean gyres. And numerous studies have shown that small organisms readily ingest microplastics, introducing toxic pollutants to the food chain.

But Browne’s 2011 paper announcing his findings marked a milestone, according to Abigail Barrows, an independent marine research scientist based in Stonington, Maine, who has helped to check for plastic in more than 150 one-liter water samples collected around the world. “He’s fantastic – very well respected” among marine science researchers, says Barrows. “He is a pioneer in microplastics research.”

By sampling wastewater from domestic washing machines, Browne estimated that around 1,900 individual fibers can be rinsed off a single synthetic garment – ending up in our oceans.

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Tiny plastic fibers taken from a water sample in Blue Hill Bay in the gulf of Maine. Photograph: Marine Environmental Research Institute

Alarmed by his findings, Browne reached out to prominent clothing brands for help. He sought partnerships to try to determine the flow of synthetic fibers from clothing to the washing machine to the ocean. He also hoped his research might help develop better textile design to prevent the migration of toxic fibers into water systems.

The reaction wasn’t what he expected.

nike bicep ceres

Both Nike and Patagonia are BICEP (Ceres) members. The Ceres Coalition represents: the Ceres Network Companies, Investor Network on Climate Risk (INCR) (publicly launched in November 2003 at the first Institutional Investor Summit on Climate Risk held at the United Nations) and Business for Innovative Climate & Energy Policy (BICEP: a coalition of more than 20 leading consumer brand corporations.) [Further reading: “Climate Wealth” Opportunists]

He contacted leaders in the outdoor apparel industry – big purveyors of synthetic fabrics – including Patagonia, Nike and Polartec. But none of these companies agreed to lend support.

“Perhaps it’s my pitch,” Browne joked. “We want to look for new, more durable materials that do not emit so much microplastic.”

In 2013, Brown presented his vision for a program called Benign by Design, backed by a team of engineers and scientists from academic institutions around the world as well as from the Environmental Protection Agency. The group’s goal is to help the industry tackle the problem of synthetic microfiber migration into waterways and marine ecosystems. He proposed creating a range of working groups where scientists and industry representatives would work together to develop synthetic materials that do not shed synthetic fibers – or do so minimally but are still cost-effective, high-performing and, if possible, rely on recycled materials.

Only one firm, women’s clothing brand Eileen Fisher, offered to support him. The company’s $10,000 grant has supported a section of Browne’s research over the past year.

“Any lifecycle issue, especially when it’s about a huge consumer product like clothing, is important,” says Shona Quinn, sustainability leader with Eileen Fisher. “[Browne] is raising an issue no one else has been studying.”

While Browne sees the grant as a validation of his efforts, 90% of the products Eileen Fisher sells are made of natural fibers. He’s still hoping to find a clothing company that will collaborate on research and development of new synthetic fabrics that will not shed microfibers.

While pitching his idea at the Launch innovation conference, Browne spoke to Jim Zieba, vice president of Polartec’s advanced concepts and business development group. In a follow-up email, Browne asked if Zeiba could provide him with polymers from Polartec textiles so that Browne could grow the database of materials he maintains to help discern the unidentified fibers in his samples. He did not hear back from Zeiba.

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Allon Cohne, global marketing director at Polartec, says he’s familiar with Browne and his research, but that Polartec has already done an internal study to analyze the effluent at its Lawrence, Massachusetts, manufacturing plant. Aside from characterizing the amount of microfibers contained in the effluent as “minimal”, Cohne said he could not publicly share the study or any details – such as what minimal means.

Browne says he’s glad to hear that Polartec conducted a study, but maintains that any truly scientific study would be open to peer review. (As it happens, the words “Committed to Science” are currently presented on Polartec’s website, above a video describing Polatec’s approach to fabric innovation.)

Patagonia, a company known for its strong environmental ethic and sustainable manufacturing processes, has also declined to work with Browne. The company’s strategic environmental responsibility manager, Todd Copeland, says the company considers Browne’s findings too preliminary to commit resources directly to a project like Benign by Design, until it sees more solid evidence that specific types of products or materials, such as fleece jackets or polyester base layers, are contributing to a major environmental threat. “I don’t know how much effort we want to spend looking for the solution before we know where the problem is,” Copeland says.

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Founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard

Browne says that, without industry support, he doesn’t know how he can move ahead with his efforts to address microfiber migration from textiles at their source.

“I think [clothing companies] have all put a lot of marketing money into environmental programs, but I’ve not seen evidence that they’ve put much money into research,” says Browne.

In fact, Patagonia maintains a policy to not directly support research, its spokesman Adam Fetcher told me. Instead, it supports non-profit groups doing environmental advocacy work. Over the past five years, Patagonia has awarded close to $70,000 in grants to groups focused on the microplastics pollution issue. These include Algalita Marine Research Foundation (founded by captain Charles Moore, who first raised the issue of microplastics in oceans), 5 Gyres, and Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC), with whom Abigail Barrows works to collect surface water samples from around the world for her research into microfibers.

Abigail Barrows
Microplastic researcher Abigail Barrows draws water samples from a lobster boat. Photograph: Veronica Young

Perhaps Browne would have more luck if he were an environmental advocate rather than a scientist.

Still, Gregg Treinish, ASC executive director, says he would need to raise a great deal more money to fund the level of research he feels microfibers deserve. “Determining what type of plastic is in the water is hard and expensive – up to $1000 per sample.”

Bad chemistry

Browne’s difficulty in finding companies to cooperate might be compounded by the fact that the industry that is already under scrutiny for different environmental issues. According to the World Bank, textile manufacturing generates up to 20% of industrial wastewater in China, and a number of environmental groups, chiefly Greenpeace, have launched campaigns to pressure clothing makers to rid their supply chains of toxic chemicals, such as perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) used in textile processing. PFCs are linked to environmental toxicity and human health problems, and Kevin Brigden, a chemist and Greenpeace honorary research fellow, says some manufacturers are finally beginning to phase them out.

But Brigden fears microfibers released from synthetic fibers could just as chemically hazardous. “Some chemicals are very water soluble, so they wash out [into wastewater during textile manufacturing],” Brigden says. “Others are less soluble so they take time to wash off. If fabrics break down then [microfibers] are another pathway for those [chemicals into the environment].”

Those fighting the use of microbeads in beauty products are finding more traction, Barrows says, because phasing them out is straightforward. Getting rid of synthetic fibers, on the other hand, would be extremely difficult. Not only are synthetic fabrics durable and versatile, but they can have smaller water and energy footprint than natural fabrics. “Synthetic fabrics have many great applications,” Barrows concedes, and determining how to measure their environmental impacts is an overwhelming challenge.

Other sources, other solutions

Polartec’s Cohne argues that too much emphasis is being placed on the clothing industry and that carpet and upholstery manufactures ought to be considered as equally important sources of synthetic microfiber runoff in the industrial sector. Professional carpet cleaners might be another vector.

Cohne also believes more onus should be put on washing machine manufacturers to find ways to capture the clothing fibers so that they do not ultimately enter wastewater treatment systems.

Browne has reached out to appliance manufacturers Siemens, Dyson (which sells washing machines in Europe), and LG, hoping to engage their design or research teams in a discussion about how they might be able to develop microfiber filters to prevent them from entering the water.

None has responded.

However, a Canadian tinkerer turned entrepreneur named Blair Jollimore is working on a solution. After his septic tank backed up and flooded his home, he discovered the main culprit was lint from his washing machine. So the former airplane engine mechanic, based in Nova Scotia, created a filter for his home laundry machine. “I’m a mechanical engineer, so I modified a water filter and added stainless steel screen,” says Jollimore. “I’ve been using it for 14 years.”

In 2003, some of his neighbors who were also having septic tank problems asked if he could make filters for their machines, too, and a home business was born. Jollimore has sold more than 1,000 of his filters to homeowners from England to Hawaii and now, with Browne’s encouragement, is preparing to pitch his filter to appliance makers as a way to rid wastewater of microfibers.

While he has found a screen that would capture strands down to 1 micron – necessary to stop all microfibers – he is still experimenting with what forcing water through such a fine filter could do to laundry machine function. “Every bit of dirt in your laundry would be captured, so it would back up the process,” he says.

As for capturing the fibers at their next stop, wastewater treatment plants, Browne is not optimistic. He says he has conferred with many engineers who work in sewage treatment and none of them thinks removing fibers – or microbeads, which enter wastewater through residential plumbing – is viable. Besides, he says, even if those microplastics were removed from the liquid waste, they would end up in sludge, which in some places ends up being turned into fertilizers. In those cases, the plastics would still enter the ecosystem, and conceivably the food chain.

Browne concedes that more research is required to better understand the sources and impacts of synthetic microfibers in the environment, and he wishes he could get the clothing companies on his side. “The [textile] people I’ve talked to have not been trained environmental scientists, they’re more often marketing people.”

“Industry is saying, ‘you just have to do more work on it’. But that will require someone to support it,” he says. “It seems to be a way of avoiding dealing with the problem.”

 

[Mary Catherine O’Connor is an independent reporter and co-founder of Climate Confidential.]

 


Dependence Limits Strategies

June 29, 2014
by Jay Taber
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Students who attended the Genoa Industrial School for Indian Youth in Nebraska in 1910, when this photograph was taken, were mostly Sioux, placed off the reservation and away from their families.

George Manuel, chief of the National Indian Brotherhood (known today as the Assembly of First Nations), once remarked, “Assimilation is annihilation.” As president of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples from 1975-1981, Manuel’s work was foundational to the Indigenous Peoples Movement we see today.

Assimilation of indigenous peoples by corporations, church and state is facilitated by creating financial and psychological dependence. As Chief Manuel’s partner in forming the Center for World Indigenous Studies in 1984, Rudolph C. Ryser once noted that “Dependence limits strategies.”

Indeed, dependence on corporations and billionaire philanthropies has corrupted indigenous leaders, and compromised indigenous activism. Something Public Good Project has exposed in its coverage of the indigenous non-profit industrial complex.

One of the assimilated indigenous NGOs exposed by IC Magazine is First Peoples Worldwide, a non-profit funded in part by Shell Oil. A non-profit whose role in this theatre of the absurd is to help corporations assimilate indigenous leaders by creating dependence that leads to cultural annihilation.

Featured frequently at Indian Country Today, First Peoples Worldwide propaganda posing as news is meant to psychologically undermine the Indigenous Peoples Movement that Chief Manuel and Dr. Ryser helped create, and to introduce non-sequiturs like Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), as though they are valid concepts. As Wrong Kind of Green reports in the evolution of CSR, corporations have never acted for the benefit of society, and it is the current threat to the legitimacy of the corporation that CSR seeks to counteract.

 

[Jay Taber is an associate scholar of the Center for World Indigenous Studies, a correspondent to Forum for Global Exchange, and a contributing editor of Fourth World Journal. Since 1994, he has served as communications director at Public Good Project, a volunteer network of researchers, analysts and activists engaged in defending democracy. As a consultant, he has assisted indigenous peoples in the European Court of Human Rights and at the United Nations. Email: tbarj [at] yahoo.com Website: www.jaytaber.com]

Institutional Control of Social Struggles – Miguel Amoros

 

“For real protest, the institutionalized opposition is the problem, the enemy and the main threat.”
“…any struggle that does not challenge the model of capitalist society is condemned to reinforce it.”
Institutional Control of Social Struggles - Miguel Amorós

Transcript of a lecture delivered at a presentation-debate held at the pirate university of Viladecans, December 9, 2009.

Translated in August 2013 from the Spanish original available online at: http://charlaspoliticarabanchel.blogspot.com/2013/01/el-control-insitucional-de-las-luchas.html

Miguel Amorós argues that the traditional mechanisms of social control and integration (parties and trade unions) have been undermined by capitalist development itself; that “the real crisis is the one that derives from the radical incompatibility of capitalism with life on Earth”, the crisis of the “external limits” of capitalism; that the “social question” thus assumes the form of the “defense of territory”, of “a different way of life”, and “the rural world” against the depredations of “sustainable development”; and that, “for real protest, the institutionalized opposition is the problem, the enemy and the main threat”.

Boreal Forest Agreement With Industry: Not One Hectare Of Forest Has Been Protected In Three Years

Boreal Forest Agreement With Industry: Not One Hectare Of Forest Has Been Protected In Three Years

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The Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement” (CBFA) was reached on 18 May 2010. Photograph: Richard Brooks/Greenpeace/EPA.

“Efforts to control corporations’ destructive impacts must have a critique of corporate power at their heart and a will to dismantle corporate power as their goal, otherwise they reinforce rather than challenge power structures, and undermine popular struggles for autonomy, democracy, human rights and environmental sustainability” – Corporate Watch [Britain]

Too Good to be True | First Peoples Worldwide

“Despite millions of dollars being funneled to Indigenous Peoples over recent decades, our communities still lack cultural and economic self-determination,” says FPW Founder and President Rebecca Adamson. “Small-grants programs tailored specifically to the needs of Indigenous communities, including the need for modern property rights to correspond with traditional land use, will contribute greatly to Indigenous empowerment.”

[For more information about such “modern property rights” read “Harper Launches Major First Nations Termination Plan: As Negotiating Tables Legitimize Canada’s Colonialism]

FPW Board member Jim Brumm in February 2012 with San peoples in Molapo Village, Botswana. (photo credit: Jim Brumm)

 

Continuity

November 18, 2012

by Jay Taber

In their June 2012 Cultural Risk Alerts for Corporate Leaders, First Peoples Worldwide highlights a UN report that says media campaigns against individual corporate miscreants is counterproductive to affecting systemic change, suggesting instead that indigenous peoples should work within the system, relying on the UN and its agencies like the World Bank to protect their interests. If one was to take FPW’s pronouncements at face value, corporations like Shell Oil, Exxon Mobil, BP, Conoco Philips and Suncor have seen the light, and with UN guidance are leading the way to a bright new future.

First Peoples Worldwide, an NGO funded by foundations, corporations and multilaterals, uses all the heartwarming neoliberal nomenclature well. So well, I suspect, that many innocent indigenous peoples are led to believe it is the answer to their prayers. But, as with all things that seem too good to be true, the first thing to check on is where they get their money. Sweet talk is one thing; who they actually work for is another.

FPW’s IRS form 990 does not name the source of its half million dollars in annual revenue, but it’s a safe bet it’s dirty money. I don’t know if their employee Nick Pelosi is related to the former US Speaker of the House, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (he’s not one of her children), but it wouldn’t surprise me. His article about Indians harnessing the economic potential of oil field and refinery development fits well with the Corporate Social Responsibility theme neoliberals love so well.

Looking at the FPW blog, the buzz about Corporate Social Responsibility touted on the home page is reinforced by this post on FPW promoting World Bank and UN co-optation of indigenous peoples through their fraudulent gatherings aimed at undermining the indigenous movement. Something Intercontinental Cry magazine has covered extensively.

A cursory review of the First Peoples Worldwide website reveals one of their Board of Directors to be Gloria Steinem, renowned feminist publisher and CIA operative, currently working to promote humanitarian warfare by the US and NATO, allegedly to “liberate women” in Arab Spring countries. As a recipient of Soros Open Society and Ford Foundation funding (no friends of indigenous peoples), Steinem’s organizations help legitimize foreign coups by the US State Department.

Non-Profit Corporate Power: Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing?

November 16, 2010

Ceasefire Magazine

by Michael Barker

Why do corporations give billions of dollars to charitable foundations every year? Does it make their profit-making activities less exploitative? In the first of a monthly series of columns investigating corporate power, Michael Barker looks at non-profit foundations.


Massive corporations wield immense power, and their ability to crush lives is commensurate with their insatiable demands for profit: profit that is derived from, and necessitates, exploitation. Therefore, working to end such anti-social activities should be a top priority for humankind. But if in some bizarre act of humanity a small proportion of the profits derived from capitalism are churned back to the very people who suffer worst from the necessary ill effects of corporate power, what then? Does such charity mean that the institutionalized exploitation of the bulk of human life is not so bad after all?

I would argue that the answer is ‘no’; corporate profit gained at the expense of humans can never be justified by such philanthropic gestures. No doubt such noblesse oblige is allocated by some elites with noble intentions; but if the price for such charity is for its recipients to ignore economic exploitation, then it is hardly distributed with altruistic intentions. Instead it is given with economic intent to profit more handsomely from a workforce, in a manner that assuages each individual capitalist’s desire to feel (and advertise) their own neglected humanity.