Smart Prosperity’s Research Network conducts world-class research focused on a stronger, cleaner economy. This Spotlight Series highlights the activities of faculty and student researchers alike, showcasing the breadth of expertise and activities of our Research and Student Networks.

In this edition, we caught up with Nancy Olewiler and Soma Barsen. The team was awarded funding through Smart Prosperity Institute’s 2021 Call for Research Proposals for their project titled “An examination of Canadians’ behaviours, attitudes, and policy preferences about synthetic (plastic) microfibre pollution“. 

Hi Nancy and Soma. Your current project focuses on exploring Canadians’ knowledge, behaviours, attitudes and perceptions about synthetic (plastic) microfibre pollution. Could you give us a bit of background for those who aren’t familiar with this topic?

Soma: Globally, plastic debris is considered the most noticeable and recognizable pollutant impacting all aquatic ecosystems. Plastic is not biodegradable except over hundreds to thousands of years. Once in the environment, plastic waste will fragment into tiny particles ranging from 5mm to about 1µm in length, which are called microplastics. Many organisms, particularly in marine environments, may confuse these for food particles, ingest them, and then die from starvation with bellies full of plastics. What is less well known is that microplastics are even more ubiquitous than ocean plastic waste (macroplastics) and a very large source of microplastics is from our washers and dryers.

Synthetic microfibres are tiny thread-like microplastics that shed from our clothes during our daily activities, in wear and tear, and especially during the washing and drying process in our household laundries. They’re called synthetic because these microfibres are shed from common fabrics such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic, which have in the last two decades become the predominant fibres used in textile production. It helps to distinguish them from microfibres shed from more natural materials such as cotton or wool.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature published a report in 2017 that said synthetic microfibres from household laundries account for 35% of microplastics releases into the global ocean every year. Today, marine, and fresh-water scientists would say this is a gross underestimate, especially if we take into consideration the microfibre emissions from so-called “natural” fibres such as cotton and wool which are typically coated (by about 5-30% by weight) in synthetic materials, including plastics, to enhance textile performance and give us the soft or smooth textures that we want. Depending on the fabric, one load of laundry may release as much as 730,000 microfibres. According to one estimate by Ocean Wise Conservation Association, an average Canadian household releases 444 million microfibres a year.

Microfibres have been identified in every environment investigated, including regions as remote as the Arctic and Mount Everest. Closer to home, in BC, for example, synthetic microfibres account for 75% of microplastics in coastal waters. And despite the very high (98%) retention rate at a local advanced wastewater treatment plant, annually 0.03 trillion microplastics are released into the receiving environment, majority of which are microfibres. Recent studies have demonstrated that microfibres may have significant ecotoxicological impacts on growth, fertility, and survivability of individual organisms and potentially entire populations of organisms. This is in no small part because microplastics can interact with other pollutants in the environment, such as heavy metals (e.g. lead and mercury which can induce poisoning), or persistent organic pollutants.


So where does your study fit in?

Nancy: A seminal study by Dr. Mark Browne in 2011 identified synthetic microfibres as the predominant microplastic released from wastewater treatment plants. Since then, various organizations and NGOs have come forward with recommendations for mitigation strategies and interventions. The recommendations largely target consumer behaviour, encouraging people to change their apparel purchasing and household laundry habits to minimize microfibre emissions. While increasing attention has been paid in general to microfibre pollution by governments, scientists, and industry, there has been far less investigation of whether the public is ‘getting the message’ and doing anything to change their behaviour.

Our research focuses on the large knowledge gap in understanding how the public perceives the environmental risks from microfibres and how they’d respond to potential policy interventions at the household level. A Canadian pilot study has demonstrated that there are currently viable filtration devices to capture microfibres during the laundry process, but uptake of them has been negligible.


Could you tell us about the big questions your project is seeking to address and how you plan to gain these insights?

Soma: Building on some initial work we conducted in BC - more on this in the next question -, our goal is to address the knowledge gap by using a comprehensive survey instrument to investigate Canadians’ laundry and clothing purchase perceptions and behaviours and how likely they are to adopt recommended interventions and/or support policy action. This is the first such study to do so by investigating attitudinal considerations, such as the public’s concern about environmental issues like air and water pollution, waste generation, climate change, and plastic pollution, and the relationship between environmental perceptions and likelihood of individuals taking steps to reduce their household’s microfibre footprint or support different policy actions. Literature suggests, and our findings from BC support, a strong positive relationship between knowledge about an environmental issue and willingness to take action to help mitigate the issue. Our current work will test this relationship (and others) for a Canada-wide representative sample. We also explore whether targeted informational measures, such as product labeling or information campaigns, are sufficient in driving household microfibre emissions reductions.

Nancy: And because I’m an economist, we also include willingness to pay for less environmentally damaging clothing in our survey! The goal is to be able to provide policy advice to governments on how to incentivise consumers to change their behaviour and take steps to reduce their microfibre emissions and to advise on what sort of regulatory change might help move things along.


Soma, this work builds directly on your Masters capstone project titled Vancouver’s Dirty Laundry: Policy considerations and interventions to address synthetic (plastic) microfibre ocean pollution in a large urban centre. Could you tell us about your main findings in Vancouver and how they informed this next Pan-Canadian phase of work? Do you anticipate seeing similar trends in the rest of Canada as you did in Vancouver? 

Wow – where to begin!? There were a lot of interesting findings. Perhaps one of the most important was that the public perceives plastic pollution and synthetic microfibres as very serious environmental issues. Whereas climate change may be considered an abstract and perhaps even distant issue (although less so now), we found that plastic pollution is highly salient for the vast majority of the public in our survey. Metro Vancouver respondents rated plastics as the top environmental issue of serious concern, globally and locally. Similarly, after the provision of information, a very large majority of respondents rated ocean pollution caused by the release of synthetic microfibres from household laundries as a serious environmental concern. Concrete (factual) knowledge about plastics was the strongest determinant of respondents’ stated degree of concern about the issues, willingness to change their behaviour, willingness to pay, and support for policy. A goal of this study is to see if the BC findings are replicated at the national level.


Nancy, you’ve been involved in a wide variety of environmental and policy-focused research over the course of your career. Any comments on the particular value of this work and how attention to the issue of plastics pollution has evolved over the course of recent decades?

While there is no shortage of environmental challenges policy makers face, microfibre pollution is one that has solutions which don’t involve the sort of polarizing trade-offs we often encounter. If most people thought, I can purchase a washer and dryer or retrofit my existing appliances so that they reduce microfibre emissions to effectively zero at a reasonable cost, we’d be in a situation analogous to the worldwide response to the thinning of the ozone layer and banning chlorofluorocarbons. Canada can make this happen and can do so relatively quickly. We don’t need decades of study. The more challenging aspect and one that Soma hopes to tackle in future graduate work is the textile industry writ large’s production processes and the consumer taste for ‘throw away’ fashion. But that’s for future work.


Soma, you were recently announced as the winner of the National Student and Thought Leadership Awards in Public Administration for your Masters capstone project - congratulations! Can you tell us a bit about the experience?

Honestly, the entire experience has been very humbling. It was an honour to have even been nominated by the School of Public Policy to compete in the national competition. I know among my graduating class there were many important and timely studies on critical issues impacting Canadians today, ranging from migrant workers’ labour rights, privacy issues in the digital age, to the occupational health and safety of sex workers and ethical considerations regarding visible minority representation in governments in our increasingly multicultural country.

The friendly competitions, honors and awards just really highlight the important work that’s being done in public policy and public administration programs across the country. The professors, research supervisors, and students are working hand in hand to think about, investigate, and address some of our country’s most pressing problems. And I think by showcasing the work being done at these schools, Canadians get an opportunity to see where we’re heading collectively and how we can work together to achieve a more inclusive and innovative society to meet the many local and global challenges that we must wrestle with in the coming years.


Thank you both and best of luck on the project!


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Soma’s master’s project can be accessed here and cited as

 Barsen, S. (2021). Vancouver’s dirty laundry: Policy considerations and interventions to address synthetic (plastic) microfibre ocean pollution in a large urban centre [Simon Fraser University].