Bay plastic infests Petaluma River

A big culprit for plastic in waterways is synthetic clothing.|

There are plastic particulates in San Francisco Bay, trillions of them. Some come from car tires - those tend to sink to the bottom - and there are tiny fragments floating, many coming from fancy polar fleece jackets and other clothing after the first few washings.

There’s other stuff in there too, like single use plastic container particles, pieces of plastic stir sticks and plastic bags, and it has caught the attention of scientists.

The San Francisco Estuary Institute and the 5 Gyres Institute carried out a study of plastic in the bay.

The Petaluma River flows into the bay and was mentioned in the study, although researchers did not collect data from the river itself. Carolynn Boxx, 5 Gyres science programs director, explained that samples were collected where the Petaluma River flows into the bay but because of the limited number of samples collected, individual sections of the bay were not analyzed separately.

“The project identified recommendations to work towards solutions, with supporting policy that eliminates single use plastic items being one of the top recommendations,” Boxx said. “We encourage Bay Area cities to look to Berkeley’s comprehensive ordinance on disposable plastic food ware as a model ordinance. Maybe Petaluma will be next?”

The Petaluma City Council recently passed a ban on Styrofoam and has considered expanding it to plastic food ware.

Clothing is a big plastic culprit too. The first washing of fleece and other plastics-based fibers can have a big impact, as the particulates tend to be dispersed more during those first washings. Lots of clothing today contain man-made plastics fibers.

Some companies, like Patagonia, are trying to find solutions and encourage the purchase of well-made items that will last longer.

“Addressing microplastic pollution is a top priority for us,” said K. Corley Kenna, senior director of global communications for Patagonia. “We were one of the first companies to invest in a scientific study to understand the problem and we remain committed to finding a solution to the shedding of synthetic fibers from the clothes we wear.”

On their website, Patagonia lists ways to help with the shedding of these types of fabrics, like using front loading washers, filter bags and information on installing permanent filters. They’re also looking for ways to make their fibers more resilient to shedding.

Another way to avoid the plastics being shed by new clothing items is by purchasing used items from places like Petaluma’s The Red Umbrella Consignment.

“Over the past 16 years, we’ve always offered value, variety and sustainability to the conscious consumer, that base has expanded dramatically as the stigma attached to buying secondhand has changed from embarrassing to hip,” Margaret Villarreal of The Red Umbrella Consignment said. “As environmentalism has gone mainstream, we find that many of our customers are aware of the high cost of fast fashion and the value of recycling and up-cycling.”

Bonnie Evans of Zoe’s Clothing Exchange i Petaluma said, “Buying and wearing natural fibers suppresses the waste and pollution produced by the manufacturing of plastics and their residual breakdown over its lifetime. Purchasing secondhand and vintage clothing is not only sustainable, but it also is easier on the pocket book.”

Alphabet Soup Thrift has a high end section called Best in Class where customers can find brands such as Free people, Made Well and Lululemon. They also have vintage pieces such as Gucci, Channel, DVF, Coach purses and more. Alphabet Soup operates under the Petaluma Educational Foundation, supporting and helping all public, private or charter schools in Petaluma.

Educating children about stewardship of the river is important, according to those most concerned with its protection. Babs Kavanaugh, chair of the board of directors of Friends of the Petaluma River spent summers playing by the river with her children and said it is part of their heritage.

“We must learn to live responsibly,” she said. “We must educate our community and particularly our children about how to ensure that we minimize damage to our natural environment. I hope that the work we do with kids at Friends of the Petaluma River will have a long term impact on the health and well being of our river and our community.”

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