In 2004, Professor Richard Thompson and his team at the University of Plymouth introduced the world to the environmental nightmare of microplastic pollution in our oceans and on shorelines, consumed by fish and other marine life and making its way into the food chain with potential impact for human health. Then in 2011, ecologist Mark Browne at the University College Dublin added to this field of knowledge when he found that 85 percent of the microfibres discovered on shorelines were human-made materials commonly used in synthetic apparel made from such fabrics as polyester and acrylic. He also found that a synthetic garment could release up to 1,900 microfibres when washed in a washing machine. Worse still, researchers at the University of Plymouth, found that a 6kg wash load could release more than 700,000 microfibres! Since some of these fibres aren’t captured at the wastewater treatment facility due to their size and abnormal shapes, they end up in our oceans.
While not all the microplastics that ends up in the sea made its way there via our washing machines, some of it can be traced back there. Ongoing research is still being conducted on the subject matter and while long-term solutions haven’t been found yet, one way individuals can take matters into their own hands is to avoid purchasing clothing made from synthetic fibres.
What are synthetic fibres?
Synthetic fibres are those that are man-made, unlike natural fibres that are, as the name suggests, derived from natural sources. Synthetic fabrics are popular in the fashion industry because they are widely available, durable, high resistance, lightweight and of course, cheap.
Synthetic fibres can be classified under two categories: those made from the cellulose of plants (“cellulose-based”) and those that are petroleum-derived. Man-made cellulosic fibres include viscose or rayon which are usually derived from wood pulp or cotton. They are also often referred to as ‘semi-synthetic fibres’ because they are artificially created but are plant-based. Man-made petroleum-based fibres, sometimes called plastic-based fibres, are fibres such as polyester and nylon.
A 2014 study revealed that synthetic cellulosic fibres, or semi-synthetic fibres, such as rayon, was found in the deep sea. Another study revealed that fish consume nylon and rayon microfibres. In light of the findings and for the sake of our oceans, it’s best to avoid synthetic fibres generally.
The most common synthetic fibres found in fashion items:
- Nylon (also known as Polyamide)
- Viscose (often referred to as Rayon in the US)
- Elastane (often referred to as Spandex in the US, and Dupont has its own version, known as LYCRA®)
Sustainable fabrics that contribute to microfibre problem
It should be pointed out that cellulose-derived man-made fabrics such as Bamboo fibres, Modal, Lyocell and Tencel® commonly referred to as ‘sustainable’ or ‘eco-friendly’, could have similar impacts on the environment. It is still early days, and scientific research into microplastics pollution from clothing is only just starting to emerge so the impacts of these fibres have yet to be conclusively tested and fully understood. Still, it shouldn’t be dismissed and one should tread consciously when washing these items.
On the other hand, there are no doubts at all that sustainable fabrics such as ECONYL® and fabrics made from recycled PET bottles release microfibres.
To gain further understanding on this topic, I sought assistance from biology teacher Claire O’Loughlin who initiated a pilot study into the microfibre issue and who generously provided her expertise for a recent article on microplastics. “And down the rabbit hole we go,” Claire replied via Instagram message. “Here is the thing: those semi-synthetics persist longer than a pure natural one. And what are they loaded with? Chemicals. Obviously all are not equal. However bad product could have heavy metals, formaldehyde, preservatives, triclosan, anti-bacterials/fungals. So in this case, what does the microfibre do? It acts as a conduit to deliver these nasties into our marine environments.
“So all that said, naturals are potentially vessels for toxins too. Especially the first wash. What is the answer? A. Textile manufacturers find best practice chemicals only. B. Manufacturers do the first wash and capture the chemicals, potentially recycling them. Good operators like Carvico have closed effluent systems. This allows them to capture toxins, but also for some of them to be reused.”
A rabbit hole indeed. In matters of sustainability, nothing is ever straightforward and there are often multiple layers of complexity. I decide that the issues raised in her response would be best left for another article (thanks for opening up that can of worms Claire…! ha!).
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Choose garments made of natural fibres
While a 2014 study found natural textile fibers such as wool, linen, and cotton present in the marine environment, these were not found to pose a threat to the ecosystem, fish and marine life as these fibres are biodegradable. Natural fibres can be classified as plant-based or animal-based. They are:
- Alpaca Wool
- Angora Wool
- Camel Hair
Purchasing clothing made of natural fibres is the best course of action in the fight against microfibre pollution, but this isn’t entirely possible or even realistic, even when buying sustainable swimwear, gymwear, activewear and yogawear, as these are still made from some form of synthetic fibre. In these cases, aim to purchase the most eco-friendly and ethical product that you can afford and make sure to use laundry bags or a laundry ball when washing.
Related Post: Understanding Sustainable Textiles and Fabrics
Microplastic pollution action plan
In a nutshell, here’s what you can do to help reduce our laundry’s microplastics pollution:
- Reduce or avoid the purchase of garments made of synthetic fibres to minimise the amount of microfibres entering the oceans through our washing machines
- If you own synthetic garments such as leggings, bikinis, and bras, make sure to place them in filter bags or place laundry balls into the washing machine to capture microplastics. Likewise, if you own semi-synthetic fabrics such as bamboo fabrics, Modal, Tencel etc you should also apply the same solutions until conclusive research is published. You can read more about these microfibre laundry filter solutions here.
- Aim to minimise the machine washing of synthetic clothing as much as possible and if you do wash, use a gentler cycle. Remember, more than 700,000 microfibres can be released in one load of washing!
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