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Story Publication logo May 28, 2024

From Merino Blend to Microplastic Monsoon: Hidden Health Hazards in Leftover Clothing



As textile waste continues to litter Ghana’s waterways, it also contributes to toxic microfiber and...


Leftover clothing from the secondhand trade strewn on local beaches. Image by Anne Whiting. Ghana, 2023.

Giant mounds of synthetic fabric strewn in and on Accra’s gutters and beaches lead to millions of micro-particles in the country’s public waters. Groundbreaking research is being undertaken to understand the clothing waste’s contribution to microplastic and microfiber pollution in precious global waterways.

ACCRA—Clothes intended for sale in Africa’s overflowing secondhand retail markets are ending up in tangled, colorful, and soaking-wet mounds on many beaches in Accra.

These sopping piles offend the eyes, certainly, ruining an otherwise pristine beach view while disturbing the ecology of the natural landscape. But these clothes are doing more damage than just burrowing in Accra’s beautiful shorelines; what cannot be seen makes this plethora of unidentified, unwanted garments even worse: These sandy, tangled pants, T-shirts, dresses, sweaters—an estimated 69% of which are made out of synthetic polyester and nylon-based fabrics—are also continually leaching millions of invisible yet permanent, non-biodegradable microfibers and microplastics into Accra's public waterways.

And from there, into the rest of the ocean.

A nonprofit environmental justice organization known as The Or Foundation has been decrying—and cleaning up—this textile waste for over 12 years. Recently, it has partnered with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography to take on the difficult challenge of studying this waste’s contribution to microplastic pollution, a simultaneously miniscule yet massive byproduct of what some say is an important apparel resale business, and which others—like The Or—criticize as an urgent situation of “waste colonialism.”

In the global secondhand clothing business, this waste colonialism entails wealthier nations selling, or even donating as a political gesture, leftover product at a discount to poorer nations under the guise of profitable business, but really what’s being sold and sent is all but trash.

Consider, nearly 80% of what is donated to Western thrift stores is sold and sent abroad to places like Ghana. The continued growth of "fast fashion" over the last few decades—the term for cheaper, trendier clothing produced quickly and disposed of quickly—has created a problem wherein many of the clothes sent to Africa for sale are not high quality, and have to be immediately thrown away. The Or Foundation says that 40% of these castoffs destined for “resale” actually immediately become waste. Even if they weren’t tossed, it’s still an enormous surplus: Every week, over 15 million garments arrive in Accra. Nobody needs that many clothes, so a high if not insurmountable volume of clothing ends up on the beach, in rivers, and in lagoons.

The Or Foundation headquarters is located in Accra’s Adabraka neighborhood, on the edge of Kantamanto Market, the largest secondhand market in West Africa, where The Or does much of its advocacy and policy work. “The aim of our microplastic endeavor,” says The Or’s co-founder and executive director, Branson Skinner, at the end of a busy day, is to “find out what is going on underneath the surface that we can’t see with the naked eye. It’s not just about what's on the surface” — the shocking and concerning piles of clothes — “but what's under the tip of the iceberg.”

A surplus of secondhand clothes end up littering and contaminating Ghana's beaches and waters. Image by Anne Whiting. 2023.

The Or is now working with Dimitri Deheyn, Ph.D., an esteemed researcher of microplastic pollution in the Marine Biology Research Division at Scripps, to begin to analyze the presence, distribution, and possible impact of microfibers and microplastics — how they affect both the environment and the human communities that depend on them. They also seek to confirm which of these micro-particles are the direct result of these beached clothes.

“What we observe is indeed mainly polyester,” says Deheyn. “It’s all over.”

Deheyn helped establish the field monitoring protocols, sample processing, and research strategy, which led to the creation of The Or’s in-house lab. This is where The Or’s Ecological Research & Remediation and Beach Monitoring Teams analyze water samples (in addition to air, sediment, and other biological samples) that they have collected from along Accra’s beaches and alongside the Korle Lagoon near the city’s main—and overflowing—dumpsite in Old Fadama, Accra. (Much of the trash, including clothing waste that cannot fit into landfills, is piled up and spread around the dumpsite, before quickly ending up in this particular Lagoon.)

Since starting the effort in 2022, The Or has collected nearly 3,000 water samples from the sea, from the lagoon, and from rain samples, says Joe Ayesu, a leader of the water sample collecting team, who also directs The Or’s Citizen Science Research efforts on the issue of clothing waste and microplastics.

In the Accra lab, analyzing microplastics involves taking enlarged photographs of microscopic microfibers and microplastics in the water samples, and then, in The Or’s in-house lab, counting every single microfiber in each sample image. Each water sample is processed through a fiberglass filter, which is photographed with UV light through a microscope, allowing researchers to accurately record and count waterborne and airborne microfibers and microplastics.

The Or Foundation and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography are conducting research to understand clothing waste’s contribution to microplastic and microfiber pollution in water. Image by Anne Whiting. Ghana, 2023.

Analyzing microplastics involves taking enlarged photographs of microscopic microfibers and microplastics in the water samples. Image by Anne Whiting. Ghana, 2023.

According to a recent Instagram post by The Or, the microfiber count in open waterways such as the Korle Lagoon is so high that it takes the Or Foundation team up to three hours to count the content of one image, and each image has to be counted by at least three people.

“We are comparing the levels of what we find in the Korle Lagoon to what levels are found elsewhere around the world. In coastal water, you can have five to 10 to 15 microfibers per liter. In the Lagoon, we can have about 100 times more than that, just to give you a ballpark,” confirms Deheyn.

These filters are sent to Deheyn’s lab for further analysis—since, as Deheyn explains, “they have an instrument that costs them maybe $2-$3,000, while I have an instrument that costs me $20-$30,000.” The partnership with Deheyn and Scripps better fosters significant quality control.

“We can validate that the research being done in Accra follows the quality of the research that is done in my lab [in San Diego] with more sophisticated instrumentation,” says Deheyn of the international collaboration. “Some of the instrumentation that we have in my lab cannot be found in Accra very easily—such as the infrared imager, which allows you to identify the chemical nature of those little fibers, and a scanning electron microscope [that helps one see] the fibers very close.

“We get to see, for example: Do you see cracks? Are they clean? Are they not clean? Is there anything else on top of those fibers—are those fibers a vehicle for other contaminants to disperse?” says Deheyn.

The scope of the ecological impacts and adverse human health effects of microfibers, microplastics, and microbeads is yet unknown, but there are a number of immediate problems with microplastic waste, says Deheyn.

The first is obvious. Plastic-based (and even bioplastic-based) fabrics do not break down. Tossed by the waves, they merely shed their material composite particles: microscopic, petroleum-based plastic pieces. These pieces, of course, don’t break down either. If anything, they eventually just sink to the bottom of a body of water, caking into—and toxifying—the sediment. They also enter the food chain, via fish or any imperfectly purified water used to irrigate crops.

Another problem is that these nonbiodegradable pieces accumulate other toxins and microbes onto their surface, and act as a vehicle for these contaminants. As these charged pieces disperse in other waterways, they make them more toxic. Deheyn says that his lab equipment is especially able to determine whether the Lagoon water shows a high concentration of heavy metals accumulated on microplastics, since there is a lot of e-waste from a nearby e-waste facility that also ends up in the Lagoon.

Not only can microplastics attract unhealthy substances, but they are also usually toxic. Plastic-based fabrics and their ensuing micro-particles are full of chemical additives, which also leach into the environment. Deheyn, who consults a number of fashion brands and textile companies, explains that where fabric is concerned, a toxic substance can be anything from a color dye, to a UV protective coating, to any kind of finishing. Deheyn remarks that not much is known about these additives and their toxicity; most of them remain trade secrets.

“Anything you can imagine the industry uses to give their material the property that they want. That's obviously being released into the water, and ultimately into what we drink and eat.” He cites recent well-known examples like the infamous BPA and PFAS chemicals.

Deheyn’s lab is currently testing the effects of these additives. In high concentrations, they cause a physical toxicity in water that can irritate any organism—such as a human—that comes into contact with it. This toxicity is made especially worse if the water is already dirty, like raw sewage. He cites a time when he got some fabric-infested water on his skin while helping collect samples in Accra: “When we collect in the lagoon, we have all kinds of biohazard PPE. Last time I was there, I got lagoon water on my forearms. I was not happy: I ran to the pharmacy, poured ethanol on both arms and tried to clean as much as possible—because I know what's in the water, and most local people don't.”

Speaking of community awareness, first and foremost, say Skinner and Ayesu, the microplastic research efforts can serve to inform local communities about the presence and possible dangers of microplastics. “It’s the people living on and around polluted waters, not the policymakers, who are most affected,” they say.

“This information pertains to the communities who are impacted. And so therefore, they should be the first people to know,” emphasizes Skinner.

Ayesu’s Citizen Science Research team works to actively involve impacted Ghanaians in the scientific research to generate more comprehensive, qualitative knowledge and understanding of the findings. When Ayesu manages community beach cleanups, he likes to speak to people who ask about the work they’re doing. He also takes community polls and consensuses about how many clothes are ending up in public spaces. They’re also starting an “Adopt A Gutter” effort to encourage people to clean up errant clothes, and have started a WhatsApp broadcast—a group chat to send results to anyone who wants to know about the ongoing studying of microplastics.

“People don't really even know about microplastics,” says Ayesu. The plastic debris in the ocean is accepted as a fact of life, and many people hardly have time to truly understand where it’s coming from, he explains. “But through our work with Citizen Science Research, people are now understanding not only the physical stuff that we see at the beach, but also what we cannot see. Gradually, people are becoming aware of what they are not actually seeing which may be causing damage or causing harm. That awareness is coming in.”

“Right now what we're doing is we're essentially establishing a baseline,” says Skinner, “which will allow us, as we implement our ongoing programs, to see the impact that they are having: Are we reducing microplastics and microfibers? Or are they growing in environmental impact? And how do we use that information to build a case for accountability and to design cleanup pathways and remediation pathways?”

The research is the first of its kind in Accra. At the very least, researchers can begin to track the increase in these microplastics as the surplus of secondhand clothes shipment continues. Another hope is that awareness of microplastic danger will incentivize policies that push resources toward detoxifying, cleaning up, and regenerating disposal sites—so that no more clothes end up littering Accra’s ocean and beach. Eventually, the research may also help ideate how to clean up this invisible debris; The Or told the public via Instagram that it's working to “determine the rate of plastic waste (including plastic textiles, i.e. polyester) decomposition through microbial process.”

Researchers are also sampling air, since microplastics and microfibers pollute air as well. Ayesu adds that they are also collecting samples from rain, sediment, fish, and other kinds of biological samples to thoroughly assess what the local community is exposed to and ingesting. A first assessment of our diverse set of samples shows that microplastics can be found everywhere, he says. The team has also collected human fingernail samples, which are more difficult to process and require help from Scripps—and while they don't detect microplastics, they do show the presence of dangerous heavy metals.

Secondhand clothes are washed up on Ghana's beaches. Image by Anne Whiting. Ghana, 2023.

The beach, on the edge of the vast Gulf of Guinea, cannot yet be cleaned up and filtered. And on another sweltering day, beach goers gather on a small beach near Jamestown, one of Accra’s poorer neighborhoods. They cook kebabs and play music under umbrellas; others sit relaxing on the rows of dried out fishing boats. Piles of old swim trunks are left out for sale by absent owners; errant trash carpets a walk to the waves—and where the water meets the shore is not soft, welcoming sand, but endless large mounds of wet clothing.

Some locals—adults, teens, and kids alike—have trekked through the clothes to cool off by going for a dip. The swimmers wave and beckon onlookers to take their picture. They spread their arms and send out a peace sign before diving back in. It’s not that they don’t mind the clothes littering their home’s nature and water—who wouldn’t?—but until the problem is sorted, they’re not going to let it stop them from a refreshing, playful swim.

Locals trek through a beach full of discarded clothes to go for a dip in the water. Image by Anne Whiting. Ghana, 2023.

Part of The Or’s work involves conducting beach cleanups to sweep up the dense swarms of clothes. Image by Anne Whiting. Ghana, 2023.

Ghana’s coastline could make for beautiful eco-tourism, with the endless blue of the water and its calm waves, the laid-back charm of skinny palm trees, and the lime green of its cliffs. Many beach clubs and resorts pay for services to clean up beach trash—including clothing.

Part of The Or’s work involves conducting beach cleanups, to sweep up the dense swarms of clothes. These cleanups are no easy feat. According to the cleanup teams, the clothes can become knotted together to form 15-foot long, entangled ropes that The Or calls “clothing tentacles.” Like deceased kelp roots, they require the strength of many volunteers to dig them out of the sand at low tide. The Or reports that it can take around 10 people and more than an hour to uncover the average tentacle, “because it is so buried and entangled with other tentacles.

Lately, the nonprofit has started calling out the companies responsible for producing the clothes that end up on the beach. Its "TAG UR IT" campaign draws attention to which brands dominate the waste stream through audits run during beach cleanups. Every month, The Or’s cleanup teams and partners will monitor which are the most prevalent brands ending up on Accra’s beaches, and start to urge brands to take accountability for their overproduction. Using Instagram as its community engagement tool, The Or’s cleanup teams urge followers to comment, tag, write letters, or visit the tag makers “IRL” to let the brands know that this issue matters.

The Or’s received a $15 million Extended Producer Responsibility, or EPR, payout from global fast fashion conglomerate Shein that made the cleanup and research efforts possible. This type of investment is what’s called for in The Or’s Stop Waste Colonialism Campaign. The campaign and its Position Paper urge commitment from both government agencies and independent fashion companies to tackle the clothes-as-waste conundrum littering Ghana’s shores.

EPR Schemes suggest that a producer is responsible for properly disposing of the waste its product generates. For Ghana, and for the secondhand clothing trade globally, this would mean that fashion companies are made to pay for their overproduction trash. Ghana or any receiving nations would become the official sanitation department of the fashion companies’ products it buries. It’s not as ideal as discontinuing overproduction of low quality goods, but it’s better than expecting Africa to suffocate under the weight of the waste for free.

Skinner emphasizes that an EPR Scheme is not intended to simply help facilitate more landfill space. While The Or is currently able to fund its beach cleanups and rent the garbage trucks necessary to transport the waste to a proper landfill, the intention is that EPR funding be directed toward more progressive initiatives that will aid in the organic decomposition of polyester textiles, and in the building up of Kantamanto Market as a flagship of secondhand fashion circularity.



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