Polyester -- the new microbead

By CMTA Staff

Capitol Update, March 19, 2018 Share this on FacebookTweet thisEmail this to a friend

As you may recall, in 2015 legislation was enacted banning plastic microbeads from personal care products over concerns about growing amounts of microplastics in the aquatic environment. Not long after its passage from the California Legislature and action at the federal level, the conversation quickly shifted to synthetic microfibers being the newest culprit of aquatic pollution. How to address their entry into the aquatic environment was less clear at that time, however.

Fast forward two years, the same author and sponsors of the microbead ban – Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), The Story of Stuff and Californians Against Waste – have proposed requiring clothing made from fabric containing more than 50 percent polyester to bear a label that states “this garment sheds plastic microfibers when washed. Hand washing recommended.” On its face the thought is to alter consumer behavior. Studies suggest machine washing such synthetic fabrics results in greater shedding of microfibers in the washing process as compared with hand washing. In taking a closer look at AB 2379 introduced this legislative session, however, the intent is arguably more insidious – a ban on polyester. The bill provides that clothing with 50 percent or more of polyester not bearing the designated label would be banned from sale in California.

The real question is whether this is a reasonable, effective approach to addressing microfibers entering into the aquatic environment. Notably, virtually all fabrics – synthetic or natural – shed. So why pick on polyester? It’s synthetic and part of an ongoing focus on synthetic plastics in the environment. As for the approach to addressing microfibers entering the environment, it is not without its trade-offs. Hand washing doesn’t eliminate microfibers entering the wastewater systems nor is it as water efficient as machine washing. Additionally, polyester and polyester blends can be more cost-effective, durable articles of clothing for many consumers. To place burdens – or even a ban – on these products could have economic consequences for many Californians who may need cost-effective, durable clothing options. And what about workers who wear uniforms made of durable polyester blends or construction workers for whom hand washing may not be sufficient to properly and adequately clean the articles of clothing? Further, many clothing manufacturers, in the interest of sustainability and cradle-to-cradle practices, are utilizing more and more recycled polyester in their clothing manufacturing. Such efforts should be lauded, not constricted with additional burdens and backlash.

While microfibers may indeed be an aquatic issue, hand washing labels and polyester bans are clearly not effective or workable solutions to addressing the concerns without their own impactful trade-offs. Instead, California perhaps could consider solutions that have a meaningful, more effective impact such as utilizing new innovative technologies coming to market that provide greater filtration from washing machines and wastewater treatment facilities. Absent a broader conversation about how to address microfibers in the environment, CMTA has serious concerns with AB 2379 as introduced. The bill has been double-referred to the Assembly Natural Resources and Environmental Safety & Toxic Materials Committees.

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