Sixteen AGs Urge Federal Agencies to Adopt a Robust National Strategy to Address Microfiber Pollution
Synthetic materials in clothing, when washed, shed microfibers that pollute waterways and are transmitted back to humans leading to serious health risks.
May 8, 2023
New York, NY — Connecticut Attorney General William Tong led a coalition of 16 states today in a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Interagency Marine Debris Coordinating Committee (IMDCC) asking the agencies to address microfiber pollution. Microfibers are one of the more pervasive elements of microplastic pollution, according to the AG letter, and “have been found in the Great Lakes, North Pole, Mariana Trench, and the icy Arctic.” As the AGs explain, microplastics (including microfibers) have been found in our drinking water and food supply, the air we breathe, breastmilk, and our blood system.
Our laundry is a major contributor to this pollution. Much of the clothes people wear is composed of synthetic materials, with one study estimating that in 2021 synthetics made up over 60% of the global cloth demand, or roughly 75 million tons. In its Trash-Free Waters article series, EPA published an article detailing how synthetic materials in clothing can add to the existing plastics problem in our waterways. What You Should Know About Microfiber Pollution raises the issue of shedding microfibers and points to health studies that have documented the impact on ocean life and risk to human health. Studies cited in the AG letter identify reproductive diseases in animals, stressing the need for further research in human health risks.
The AG letter today asks that the agencies step up as leaders to address this issue. Specifically, the AGs have offered three actions the agencies can take:
explore programmatic authority under the Clean Water Act regarding microplastics and microfibers;
work with state and industry stakeholders on a strategy that would implement filtration systems in washing machines; and
support research on the environmental and health harms of microfiber pollution with an emphasis on environmental justice communities.
“Plastic microfibers are a pervasive, toxic pollutant with potential to cause severe harm to human health and our environment,” said Connecticut Attorney General William Tong. “We’re calling on EPA and NOAA to follow its own research and use the full extent of its authority to protect public health and the safety of our oceans.”
“Laundry is a surprisingly big source of plastic pollution as new research shows,” said Bethany Davis Noll, Executive Director of the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center. “The AG letter highlights the significant need for research and analysis on this important issue.”
Background — In 2018, Connecticut established a Microfiber Pollution Working Group to develop consumer awareness campaigns and provide recommendations to help mitigate microfiber pollution. In 2020, this working group released its findings in a report to the state’s legislature.
In 2022, EPA’s Trash Free Waters Program and NOAA’s Marine Debris Program published a Draft Report on Microfiber Pollution on behalf of the Interagency Marine Debris Coordinating Committee. The Surfrider Foundation provided comments that identified how critical it is to consider solutions which prioritize environmental justice communities. The Or Foundation, a nonprofit that works “at the intersection of environmental justice, education, and fashion development,” also provided comments asking that the final report acknowledge “the global impact of microfibers emitted as a result of the secondhand clothing trade, to which the USA is the largest contributor.” In their comments, they also request additional research on the impact of microfibers, action plans to clean up microfiber pollution, and promote the use of natural fibers and dyes.
Earlier this month EPA’s Draft National Strategy to Prevent Plastic Pollution comment period opened; the agency will receive comments until June 16, 2023. The strategy aims at reducing plastic and other post-consumer waste material pollution from our waterways.
The attorneys general of California, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and Washington, D.C. joined AG Tong in today’s letter.
About the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center:
The State Energy & Environmental Impact Center at NYU School of Law is a nonpartisan academic center at NYU School of Law. The Center is dedicated to working towards a healthy and safe environment, guided by inclusive and equitable principles. The Center studies and supports the work of state attorneys general (AGs) in defending, enforcing, and promoting strong laws and policies in the areas of climate, environmental justice, environmental protection, and clean energy.