How Patagonia and One Little Bag Can Save the World

Fleece microfibers make up 85 percent of beach pollution. But how you wash your clothes can change everything.


Did you know that each time you do a load of laundry filled with synthetic fabrics you release microfiber masses into your civic water system? And that most of the time, your local water treatment plant can’t filter out those microfibers so they end up in nearby waterways, and, eventually, the ocean?

Researchers at UC Santa Barbara did. A team from the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management partnered with Patagonia back in 2015 to study just what happens when we toss our beloved synthetic outdoor wear (the team tested jackets) in the wash. Their findings were alarming.

Each wash, the study discovered, sends on average 1.7 grams of microfibers into the water treatment system. Once there, some are filtered out, but something like 40 percent of those microfibers get released into rivers, lakes, and oceans. Top-loading machines are worse, shedding between five and seven times the amount of microfibers that front loading machines do. The age of the synthetics matter, too. The team “mechanically aged” some of the jackets they washed and found that the older the fabric, the more microfibers they released.

And the microfibers are everywhere.

A 2011 paper from the University of New South Wales showed that microfibers are responsible for 85 percent of shoreline pollution across the globe. The microfibers work their way into the aquatic food chain wherever they’re found—both in salt and freshwater. Evidence shows that ingesting microfibers and plastics has deleterious effects on sea life, but the fibers also find their way into our bodies when we eat seafood.

The problem is further complicated by the fact that, as the UC Santa Barbara study showed, microfibers from synthetic apparel are often coated with toxic chemicals. Fibers are also able to absorb and concentrate pollutants present in the water supply. “This indicates that microfibers are of particular concern regarding their potential to transport hazardous chemicals into the environment,” the authors of the study said.

Which brings us to a novel idea for how to mitigate our microfiber problem: The Guppy Friend. The bag was developed by Alexander Nolte and Oliver Spies, two German entrepreneurs who own a small chain of outdoor apparel shops. They were amazed and alarmed by the growing microfiber pollution problem, and wanted to do something to mitigate pollution from some of the very jackets they sold.

The Guppy Friend is a simple laundry bag that you stuff your synthetics into when you wash them. Made of a nylon mesh (which sheds very little microfibers) the bag is essentially a mesh filter that prevents microfibers from being released into the water that drains from the washing machine. Once the clothes come out of the wash, the microfibers can be collected from the bag and disposed of, keeping them from entering the waterways.

If you live in a country where trash is burned, these microfibers are gone for good. Here in the U.S., throwing your microfibers into the landfill just moves the problem down the road. I reached out to Nolte and Spies to ask about the landfill issue. They reported that they’re hoping to introduce a recovery system by which to collect the fibers for possible reuse in “long-lasting consumer goods.”

Guppy Friend was successfully funded on Kickstarter back in December, and will begin shipping to backers soon. In the coming weeks and months, Guppy Friend bags will start appearing in Patagonia stores. Patagonia helped fund the bag’s creation, in part because of the the above referenced study that showed how much of a problem microfibers have become. Patagonia, and the stores that the Nolte and Spies already own, will be the first retailers to sell Guppy Friend bags. Patagonia, according to a report in the Guardian, will be selling the bags at cost—not for profit.

The UC Santa Barbara study showed that a city of 100,000 people are capable of releasing up to 110 kg of microfibers each day into the environment through washing, a number equivalent to 12,000-15,000 plastic bags being dumped into our waterways. Mitigating this issue is a major hurdle for the outdoors industry. The Guppy Friend just might be a small, but significant first step.

Top photo by We Make Noise

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Showing 7 comments
  • Dan
    Reply

    That’s insane! Being Eco-Conscious is becoming ever so complicated…

  • Harry
    Reply

    It’s the BreN School of Environmental Science & Management.

  • H.
    Reply

    I wish the problem was just about throwing your sweater in a bag but more than just sweaters are made from it. Wouldn’t it make more sense to design a filter for the treatment plants or the washers?

    Do not agree with the plastic bag comparison. Plastic bags cause all kinds of problems but some of which are different than micro fibers. When they break down to micro level it may be similar.

  • Marren
    Reply

    Why not maybe invent a microfiber filter for washing machines?

    • Justin Housman
      Reply

      I asked them about that and about scaling up to make filters for water treatment plants — they said it’s theoretically possible but wildly expensive.

  • John Moore
    Reply

    We filter all of our washer’s water through a nylon stocking. Is this as effective as the Guppy Friends bag? Of course, it ends up in a landfill, but at least it’s not in the water supply.

  • Wes
    Reply

    Wait… you’re supposed to wash this stuff?

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