In 2001, the basement of Blair Jollimore’s family house in the suburbs outside Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, flooded with sewage. He called the septic company. “The guy showed up and he goes, ‘You have a lint problem,’” Jollimore remembers. In his septic tank, a layer of lint seven centimetres thick was floating on the water like a grey cloud.

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Jollimore, a mechanical engineer technologist who has worked in maintenance for an aircraft-engine manufacturer for thirty years, is no stranger to fixing things on his own. After a few failed attempts, he came up with the idea to modify a water-filter housing with a stainless-steel mesh screen. When a load of laundry drained, he could see lint gather as the water passed the screen in the clear discharge hose.

Not only did his filter work but neighbours, worried about similar issues, began asking him to install the device in their homes. In 2003, he sold around a dozen at his first home show in Halifax (enough to cover expenses). He named his product “Lint LUV-R” and launched a website—Environmental Enhancements—for homeowners, from as far as Sweden and New Zealand, to order the filter and install it on their own. He now ships around 600 filters each year—a household product that may also be a solution to a global environmental concern that’s nearly impossible to see.

Microplastics are the hidden scourge of our waterways. These tiny pieces of plastic measure less than five millimetres but, despite their seemingly innocuous size, are dangerous precisely because they are small, persistent, and ubiquitous. While global attention has been focused on two of the three sources of microplastic, macroplastics (from plastic bags or containers that have degraded into fragments) and microbeads (tiny plastic exfoliators in toothpastes, body washes, and face scrubs), scientists are learning that the third kind, microfibres—microscopic plastic threads that commonly shed from our clothing—are potentially the most abundant of the three.

Municipal wastewater-treatment plants can capture some microfibres that mass together, but most facilities aren’t capable of stopping the free flow of the fibres into our rivers, lakes, and oceans every time the water from our washing machines leaves the drain. And while natural materials also shed, synthetics have scientists particularly worried.

Peter Ross, vice-president of research at the conservation association Ocean Wise, based in Vancouver, has been researching microplastics since 2001 and is now leading a Canadian study on microfibres. In 2014, his team published a study that found as many as 9,000 microplastic particles, of which about 75 percent were fibres, in each cubic metre of water sampled off British Columbia’s coast. Similarly, in 2016, researchers in the United States found that 71 percent of the microplastics found in twenty-nine tributaries of the Great Lakes were microfibres. We are figuratively drowning in these little threads.

“Plastics are here in chemical form forever,” says Ross. “Products will break down physically but not chemically.” Depending on their size, microplastics can be ingested by fish and even zooplankton, and they can lacerate or block intestines, leading to starvation, injury, or death. They can move up the food chain and leach chemicals into an animal’s tissue. (Even gutting a fish won’t remove the potential toxins in the filets on our dinner plates.)

Jollimore’s Lint LUV-R could be a key weapon of defence against microfibres. After an ecologist in California first documented the pollutant as a global problem in 2011, several researchers became interested in testing Jollimore’s filter. (One test is showing it can catch over 80 percent of fibres.) Ross’s team is studying filters, including the Lint LUV-R, as viable household solutions, and conducting a kind of forensic analysis on microfibre samples—matching a single fibre to its source. “I liken it to studying snowflakes,” he says. “We’re not talking about a chemical that we can measure in the lab.” Although the study of microfibres is still in early stages, the fact that our clothing could be poisoning waterways around the world would be an enormous hurdle for a clothing industry that has faced immense criticism over its lack of environmental responsibility.

When the dangers of microfibres first became publicly known, fingers were pointed at polar fleece as the principal culprit. The cozy material, created by engineers at a textile mill in Massachusetts who wove polyester fibres into a dense fabric, came to market in the early 1980s in partnership with the American outdoor-gear company Patagonia. Fleece shot to popularity as replacement for wool: it was soft and lightweight, and it provided excellent insulation and wicking. It was also billed as eco-friendly, especially once it began to be manufactured from recycled products. The problem, it turned out, was that it shed. As accusations against fleece began to mount, Patagonia, looking to be transparent, commissioned a study in 2016 and found that each time a single fleece jacket or sweater is laundered, up to two grams of microfibres are released.

We know now that microfibres don’t begin and end with fleece. Many companies—including fast-fashion brands H&M, Zara, and Forever 21—use synthetics, such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic, to make anything from leggings to button-up shirts. “It’s everything,” says Anika Kozlowski, a PhD candidate researching sustainable fashion design at Ryerson University in Toronto. And while laundry seems to be the main release point for microfibres (products such as carpets and fishing nets can also shed), she says even the way in which fabrics are cut in a factory, by hand or by laser, can change the number of fibres released in the manufacturing process.

Mountain Equipment Co-op, keen to produce clothing with a low environmental impact, provided Ross with forty-five of the 111 textile samples he is running through his test washing machines. After specialized filters collect the effluent, Ross’s team spends hours peering through microscopes trying to understand which materials shed most—information that could inform how MEC engineers its materials. “That level of predictability is really helpful to then change industry on what would we do differently” says Greg Scott, MEC’s director of product integrity.

The company’s samples are largely the synthetic performance gear it is known for, but MEC has also given Ross materials made from natural fibres, to test the assumption that they aren’t a problem. Cotton, wool, and silk are often treated with various chemicals—dyes, softeners, stain release agents—that change how they break down.

Like Scott, Kozlowski sees a potential solution in the design phase of a garment, when material selection or even the methods of fabricating yarn could impact shed rates. Researchers say that washing our clothes less frequently and buying fewer, built-to-last items—which shed less—are the best ways to keep microfibres out of our waters. But as one recent study warned, “without a well-designed and tailor-made management strategy for end-of-life plastics, humans are conducting a singular uncontrolled experiment on a global scale.”

Legislation is already pushing microbeads off our shelves and out of our waters. In June 2017, Canada passed the Microbeads in Toiletries Regulations, under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, which prohibited the manufacture and import of toiletries containing microbeads as of January 1. This July, their sale will be banned. (The sale of natural health products and non-prescription drugs containing microbeads will be prohibited next year.)

But regulating microfibres, a by-product rather than an additive, will be much more difficult. Even consumer choice can only go so far: it is much easier to swap out harmful face wash than to find a T- shirt that doesn’t shed. Regulations came down on the cosmetics industry when it was plagued with concerns over animal testing, for example, but few rules dictate how clothes can be manufactured or laundered. In the same way that many provincial fire codes require that dryer lint traps be cleaned regularly, researchers hope that mandatory washing machine filters will also one day be the norm—that a global threat may be considered as serious as a personal one.

When microfibres do rise to the same public profile as microbeads, Jollimore’s Lint LUV-R may have an edge, but it is not alone in the market. The Rozalia Project, an American ocean-conservation initiative, offers the Cora Ball, inspired by how coral acts as an oceanic filter, and Patagonia sells Guppyfriend, a German-designed polyamide laundry bag—both designed to catch microfibres in the wash.

Jollimore is still using his original prototype filter, which he only needs to empty to dispose of the lint every few weeks, and is working on a second model. He is waiting for research, rather than legislation, to roll in, and he is ready to grow his business as microfibres become better known. “The silver lining of the cloud was for me to come up with an idea,” he says. “This solution that I’d come up with can maybe help solve a world pollution problem.”

Tina Knezevic
Tina Knezevic is an editor at TVO and a former Chawkers Fellow at The Walrus. Her work has appeared in the National Post, Dallas Morning News, and TVO.
Maxime Francout
Maxime Francout is a French artist and designer working and living in Montreal.