Fleece probably saved my life. I had just dumped my canoe in light rapids on a cool and overcast summer morning in northern Maine. I caught the throw bag, got hauled out, and started shivering despite the adrenaline from my first-ever whitewater swim. And then I did as I was told: I removed my sodden Patagonia, windmilled it over my head until it was dry enough to hold warmth, and put it back on. As we all know, synthetic fleece, even when wet, is a good insulator.
There’s a lot to love about fleece. It’s cozy, more affordable than other insulating layers, performs consistently, and it’s hard to destroy. I own several fleeces, as does just about everyone I know. And I feel a sense of guilt for what it’s doing to our planet.
Fleece—even the recycled stuff—is bad for the environment because it sheds. Every time you wash yours, millions of microscopic plastic particles swish off it and out your washer’s drain hose. According to a study conducted by Patagonia and the University of California Santa Barbara in 2016, your average fleece sheds about 1.7 grams of microplastic per wash cycle (recycled fleece sheds a bit less per cycle). Older fleece sheds more than newer fleece; generic more than name brand.
To put that into context, in 2019, 7.8 million fleeces were sold, according to The NPD Group which tracks point-of-sale transactions across the outdoor industry. If every fleece sold last year was washed just once, that would equate to 15 tons of microplastics introduced into our air and water. According to another 2016 study from researchers in Scotland, American waste water treatment plants can catch more than 98 percent of microplastics, but even with such a high catchment rate, each plant still pumps out some 65 million microplastic fragments daily.
Microplastic has proliferated far and wide in the 70 years since the bonanza began. It’s now in our tap water, milk, beer, you name it. According to a 2019 study by the World Wildlife Foundation, the average person ingests 9 ounces of plastic per year—that’s 5 grams, or the equivalent of one credit card, per week entering into our digestive tracts, lungs, and bloodstream. No one yet knows exactly what harm this causes, but there’s a reason we don’t shred up our shopping bags and mix them with our salads.
This is nothing new—that Patagonia/UC Santa Barbara study has been out for years—and yet very little has happened to mitigate the problem. And so it’s time for consumers for put pressure on the gear manufacturers to start using more eco-friendly materials.
True, Patagonia has worked to reduce the amount of microplastic that slough off its fleeces in the washing machine. And last year, Polartec released Power Air, a knit fleece that sheds 5 times less microplastic than a standard fleece. But there is no such thing as a fleece that doesn’t shed little bits of plastic in the wash. It’s easy to congratulate ourselves when 20 recycled soda bottles went into making our insulating garments, but 20 single objects are significantly easier to scoop up out of the waste stream than microscopic plastic fragments.
So what do you do with all that fleece you already own? Hang onto it. Wear it until it’s a rag. Just don’t wash it in a machine, especially a top-loader (front-loaders are better). And when it’s time to buy something new, think about going for a layer that isn’t bad for the environment you’re wearing it to enjoy.