In response to concerns over the documented diffusion of microplastics into waterbodies worldwide, regulators proudly point to the international efforts to eliminate microbeads from cosmetics and personal health care products. But microbeads are a discrete set of plastic additives to a discrete set of products, making regulatory efforts relatively straightforward.

More importantly, aquatic research seems to confirm that microbeads form only a small portion of the overall microplastics waterborne content – so what regulatory steps are coming next?

“It’s Complicated” Says IJC

The U.S. – Canada International Joint Commission (IJC) has been actively considering what steps may be necessary to address the levels of microplastics in the Great Lakes. Microplastics mitigation research was followed by the recent release of the IJC’s Great Lakes Water Quality report which notably failed to offer any comprehensive abatement measures for the various microplastics contamination sources:

The US and Canadian governments are to be commended for the great strides they have made addressing the issue of microbeads. However, microbeads are a subset of the much broader issue of microplastics, which is a more complex problem requiring more complex policy responses.

(Micro)Plastics Already Waste Diverted

Most of the IJC’s attention on microplastics pollution prevention focusses on waste management efforts. Plastics packaging has long been a part of international waste diversion programs and Ontario’s recent Resource Recovery and Circular Economy Act will actually mandate a registry (and corresponding diversion) for each of:

  • product primary packaging;
  • convenience packaging; and
  • transport packaging.

In other words, the methods necessary to divert plastics material from waste streams are reasonably well established.

Microfibres Releases as “Source Reduction”

Included within the mitigation goals of the IJC is the unspecified aim of microplastics source reduction, making microfibres, as the greatest contributor of microplastic particles in urban streams, an obvious and reachable target for mandated change.

Specifically, home laundering of synthetic fabrics, including polyester (PET), is commonly viewed as a contributing factor to microplastic pollution through municipal wastewater flows. PET, nylon, and acrylic textiles used in garments are known to degrade over time and inevitably produce microfibers.

Add Microfibres to Toxic Substances List?

The challenges in conventionally regulating microfibres a toxic substance start with the absence of any designated Chemical Abstracts Service number, the tracking identify for substances more generally. Microbeads, as defined product additives, have been declared toxic but with microfibres it is principally the degradation of synthetic fabrics which produces the aquatic contaminant, long after the product lifecycle window of opportunity to effectively regulate has passed.

There has been even been some suggestion that all microfibre-associated chemicals (namely contained within the microfibres or otherwise attaching to them) be deemed toxic, but this would have drastic and far-reaching consequences unrelated to microfibre reduction.

Product Design Standards Might be the Answer

In taking the (seemingly) unprecedented step of announcing funding for private research into their product generation of microfibre pollution, outdoor activity retailer Mountain Equipment Cooperative has committed funds to researching the problem themselves.

Notably, one of the express goals of this microfibre research is to establish a:

quality assessment standard for rates of fibre loss in synthetic materials that can be used to inform textile selection and innovations.

The MEC-funded research is admittedly in its infancy, but producers and retailer of synthetic textiles will want to be aware now that standards and eventual limits on microfibre loss appear to be on the horizon.