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NEWS

If you’ve ever been inside a shopping mall, you’ll notice the brightly-clad mannequins inside storefronts, the racks of bold clothing, and the affordable price tags. Maybe you’ll even glance inside and see a sale happening as the store clears out its inventory for new trends to roll in. While it’s common knowledge by now that many of these clothes end up in landfills, scientists have recently been interested in the harm these clothes do—not at the end of their usage, but during it.


Within the last few decades, production has sped up for many things, but perhaps one of the most prominent advances in our lives is fast fashion. The idea of fashion being “fast” refers to a number of things—the changes in trend, the production of such garments, as well as the duration of time that clothing is worn for.


While there are many harmful implications of fast fashion, one of these is the synthetic materials fast fashion increasingly relies upon. Polyester, nylon, and acrylic, for example, are heavily processed fossil fuels that are cheap to produce. While recycling the fabric can reduce waste, that does nothing for the problem of microfibers, which are tiny strands of fabric released from clothes. These microfibers are released to the air or to waterways, where they can be ingested by animals and cause the overall health of the ecosystem to decline. Furthermore, the microfibers can end up in us as we eat the animals.


Although microfibers can shed off clothing simply from everyday wear, many point to microfibers shed in the process of washing as a majority of the problem. When clothes are laundered, the churning of the washing machine and the friction from other clothes causes the production of microfibers. In fact, “just a single load of laundry can release up to eighteen million microfibers” according to Dr. Anja Brandon.


To combat this, Assembly Bill 1628 was introduced by California Assembly Member Tine McKinnor. In March 2023, the California State Assembly committee held a hearing for the bill, and it was passed. This would require the installation of microfiber filters with a mesh size smaller than or equal to 100 micrometers on new washing machines sold in California by 2029. The hope is that by collecting microfibers at the source, less of them will make their way into freshwater and the ocean.


The effectiveness of the solution has yet to reach a clear consensus. Some are optimistic about the outcome, but others are skeptical. Initial studies seem to suggest that microfiber filters themselves are effective — capturing up to 87% of microfibers when tested in a lab, but that number seems to drop when tested in homes. One study conducted by the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers found that the filters were only 26% effective. They were also concerned about the increase in energy needed to wash the clothes, leaking that might occur around the filter, and the cleaning that the filter required every few cycles.


The bigger pushback, however, comes from disapproval of the legislature’s focus on washers, arguing that what’s needed is a more comprehensive solution. While there’s limited research on exactly when clothes shed the most microfibers, many theorize that the friction of just wearing the clothes is enough to shed as many microfibers as are produced in the wash. Others suspect that many of the microfibers in our environment are produced in textile mills, as the clothing is being produced.


The biggest problem then, it seems, is the lack of research and technology currently available. To find a comprehensive, effective solution, more studies need to be conducted, and research and development, which already seems to be fully underway, needs to continue.


Although the average citizen cannot pass legislation that revolutionizes the clothing industry, there are a few things they can do to reduce the amount of microfibers their clothing sheds in the wash. Washing clothing less and washing it in cold water has been shown to reduce microfibers, as well as washing in a front-loading washing machine with full loads of laundry to reduce friction. Dryers are also theorized to create microfibers, so one can choose to air dry clothing or install an outdoor lint trap. Natural fibers also shed less than synthetic materials like nylon and polyester, so buying clothing made of cotton, linen, and hemp could also reduce microfibers.


So next time you’re at a mall, remember what the flashy clothing and bright lights don’t show—that these new materials have already shed, and will shed, microfibers into our waterways and environment. Although we are not all politicians, we can and should each do our part to be mindful of the earth—it’s the only one we have.


Citations


Bill Tracking in California - AB 1628 (2023-2024 Legislative Session) - FastDemocracy. https://fastdemocracy.com/bill-search/ca/2023-2024/bills/CAB00030371/. Accessed 23 July 2023.


“California AB1628 | 2023-2024 | Regular Session.” LegiScan, https://legiscan.com/CA/text/AB1628/id/2831767. Accessed 23 July 2023.


Erdle, Lisa M., et al. “Washing Machine Filters Reduce Microfiber Emissions: Evidence From a Community-Scale Pilot in Parry Sound, Ontario.” Frontiers in Marine Science, vol. 8, 2021. Frontiers, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmars.2021.777865.


Nieman, Bob. California Bill Would Require Microfiber Filters on Washers - PlanetLaundry. 31 Mar. 2023, https://planetlaundry.com/california-bill-would-require-microfiber-filters-on-washers/.


Rahim, Saqib. “How Do You Tackle Microplastics? Start with Your Washing Machine.” Grist, 19 Apr. 2023, https://grist.org/technology/how-do-you-tackle-microplastics-start-with-your-washing-machine/.


Reducing Laundry Microfibers (U.S. National Park Service). https://www.nps.gov/articles/000/laundry_microplastics.htm. Accessed 23 July 2023.


“What Is Fast Fashion and Why Is It a Problem?” Ethical Consumer, 5 Sept. 2019, https://www.ethicalconsumer.org/fashion-clothing/what-fast-fashion-why-it-problem.

Mount Soledad is constantly under construction. When driving through Via Capri or La Jolla Scenic Drive, one can’t help but notice construction sites bearing large dumpsters along the roads. At a time when La Jollans are receiving their household green trash cans to recycle organic waste, indicative of the city’s pioneering enthusiasm of environmental sustainability, questions about construction waste arise. Is construction waste really that big of a problem? And is it being sustainably processed? If so, how?


In terms of the nationwide construction industry, waste is a huge issue. A quick Google search reveals that in the United States alone, construction and demolition (C&D) waste accounts for an estimated 38% of all waste produced annually, which makes the construction industry one of the largest waste generators. According to the Environmental Protection Agency and other research, this amounted to over 600 million tons of construction waste in the US in 2022 and will exceed 2.2 billion tons by 2025.


While we know the issue goes far beyond La Jolla, the way construction waste is managed in La Jolla can help us understand the situation across the whole country.


To answer the question of sustainability in construction waste, I visited an ongoing residential construction site in La Jolla and interviewed project superintendent Chris Fischer. Fischer is from RGB, a local construction firm known for its climate-conscious actions since its founding in 2007. Fischer explained that construction waste comes from surplus or damaged materials, cut-offs, packaging, debris, scaffoldings, exporting soil and sand. His team has an onsite recycling system to classify the waste by materials such as wood, concrete, metal, plastics, carton, etc. In addition to stations with recycling bins of different colors and markings throughout the site, an RGB superintendent is assigned to oversee the waste sorting, making sure that they are going to the correct stations and being collected by an appropriate third-party who will take the materials to secondary locations. Some materials such as untreated wood, certain metals, and surplus cement are taken to recycling centers in Miramar and Riverside.


Though these measures represent an improvement over the lack of environmental awareness shown by many other construction companies, much of the waste RGB handles unfortunately still ends up in landfills without the possibility for further use or treatment due to their non-degradable nature.


“The nature of traditional construction methods generates a significant amount of waste. We try our best to reuse materials whenever there is an opportunity. We send materials to recycled plants whenever possible. However, the waste management on a site level is very limited. We lack the budget and time to do more even though we want to do more, not to mention that the average industry is even further behind us,” said Fischer.


When I asked about what he would like to see for the future of waste management outside of the construction sites, Fischer answered: “We should preplan the construction waste management before the construction starts, and we should involve all game players in the industry to develop an ecosystem.”


Here are a few suggestions that Fischer outlined.


First, waste management should be considered a priority as early as the design stage. Architects and engineers should work together to favor the usage of more sustainable and reusable materials. They should also try to include as many modular and prefabricated products as possible to eliminate cut-offs.


Second, contractors should order materials with more care and greater precision to avoid the accumulation of surplus materials, especially those which cannot be recycled or repurposed.


Third, lawmakers should launch more appealing incentive policies to motivate all game players, including the property owners, to contribute to managing construction waste.


Finally, there should be a market platform where builders as waste suppliers, end users as waste consumers, and everybody in between as service providers all come together to create a self-sustaining system for construction waste trade. “It is like an e-commerce platform specifically for construction waste,” Fischer said. “With the advanced technologies and highly-efficient logistics systems in this country, it is not something unrealistic. We need someone who shares the vision to lead the sustainable future of the industry.”


Imagine a day where construction waste goes to landfills as little as possible and in far greater amounts to end users. Whether it be an artist who is looking for a single piece of welded iron for a sculpture or a flooring plant looking for large amounts of reclaimed wood planks as raw material for their products, there can be a path for everyone. The solutions suggested by RGB show how construction waste management, far from being merely an afterthought or an environmental duty, can generate value for players across many industries.


Naomi Park, a high school junior from Greenwich, Connecticut, won the US Stockholm Junior Water Prize with her project, "Concurrent Removal of Rising, Soluble Ocean Carbon Dioxide and Oil-in-Water Contaminants via Multi-Functional Remediation Framework." Her project focused on addressing three challenging-to-remove pollutants commonly found in oceans: carbon dioxide, crude oil, and styrofoam. In search of a mitigation method for these contaminants, she came across hyper-crosslinked polymers, or HCPs, which are non-polar, high surface area compounds. These porous HCPs have the ability to efficiently absorb environmental pollutants. However, two limitations existed with this material: the synthesis of HCPs required expensive reagents, and they had not been implemented in real-life settings, as they resembled an insoluble powder.


Naomi solved both these problems by creating HCPs out of styrofoam waste and integrating them into a remediation framework. Her innovative solution effectively and sustainably absorbs both crude oil and carbon dioxide.


Watch Naomi further discuss her project:


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