Plastic Microfibers: the plastic-pollution saga continues

We live in a world shaped by plastic – it’s everywhere and unavoidable, making our lives easier but our environmental footprint more significant. It’s a double-edged sword: the durability that makes plastic so important in our daily lives becomes a challenge when dealing with plastic waste. Plastic is persistent, especially when it ends up in the environment.

By now, it’s pretty obvious that plastic pollution is a problem. Take a stroll down nearly every city or country road, and you’re bound to eventually happen across some forgotten plastic bag, fast-food cup, or other random debris. If you’re lucky, you might be able to walk for miles before this happens, but that’s not to say that you’re in an unpolluted environment. In reality, plastic pollution is everywhere, largely due to particles too small to hold or see, buried in the dust at your feet.

Discarded plastic water bottles on beaches may be an eyesore, but at least these items can easily be picked up and thrown away.

Microplastics are an emerging culprit in the plastic-pollution crisis. These tiny bits of plastic, less than 5 mm in size, have now been found just about everywhere on Earth, from the snow on Mount Everest to the depths of the sea, in the food and water we consume, and even in human placentae. Although some microplastics originate from the breakdown of other larger pieces of plastic pollution, they are generally already very small in size when released to the environment. Microbeads, which I’ve already discussed here, are small spherical particles found in many cosmetics and personal hygiene products. They get washed down the drain and accumulate in our natural waters, which has led to a ban on the sale and manufacture of these kinds of products in many countries. Yet, plastic microfibers, originating from clothing and other textiles, are a far bigger issue and remain relatively undiscussed.

According to an Australian study published in October 2020, an estimated 14 million tonnes of microplastics can be found on the ocean floor alone, not to mention the countless other particles suspended in the water. The biggest contributor to this plastic soup is – you guessed it – microfibers from textiles. As a single piece of clothing can produce over 1900 fibers per wash, it’s no wonder that textiles are estimated to be responsible for 35% of the microplastic pollution in the world’s oceans. As is the case with all microplastic pollution in the ocean, these particles then adsorb other toxic chemical pollutants and heavy metals, are ingested by smaller marine life, disrupt marine environments, and bioaccumulate as they are transferred up the food chain.

Plastic microfibers – where do they come from?

All textiles are made from fibers, or tiny hair-like filaments, that can be spun or woven into a variety of shapes and textures. Natural fibers, such as wool, linen, cotton, or silk, are derived from animal hair or plants. Historically, natural fibers provided humans with their textile needs, but a modern lifestyle has driven the popularity of semi-synthetic and synthetic fabrics. Although synthetics are less breathable and moisture-absorbing than their natural counterparts, they require less maintenance, are lightweight yet strong, dry quickly, are elastic and flexible, and are inexpensive. These factors allow us more options for self-expression with our wardrobes, to forget about dry cleaning and ironing, and to participate in our favorite activities with greater physical comfort. Thanks to synthetic textiles, the days of wool swimsuits are a thing of the past.

It’s important to first distinguish between semi-synthetic and synthetic fibers. Semi-synthetics are derived from plant matter that has been chemically extracted and processed. This allows to obtain textile fibers from unconventional natural sources or yields a final product with more interesting properties than its untreated counterpart. Rayon is an example of this. While textile cotton is made from the native cellulose fibers found in the cotton plant, rayon is the regenerated cellulose fibers chemically extracted from wood pulp. While cotton and rayon fabrics are made from the same molecule, the chemical processing involved in making the latter changes how the molecules interact with one another, making rayon fibers stronger and silkier. The most basic type of rayon is viscose, but further chemical processing can provide other characteristics and distinct fabrics, such as lyocell or modal. Semi-synthetic fabrics, although they require intense chemical processing, often require less water, pesticides, and land use in their production than conventional natural options. Another upside: like natural fibers, semi-synthetics are biodegradable, and don’t lead to plastic pollution.

When talking about plastic microfiber pollution, the real culprit is the family of synthetic fibers. Wholly synthetic fibers are derived from fossil fuels and the petrochemical industry. Washing these synthetic textiles, in industrial laundries and households, releases plastic microfibers, as tiny bits of the fabric break away due to the friction and turbulence involved. Whatever fraction that isn’t caught by other clothes or captured by the machine itself then gets discharged in sewage water. Wastewater treatment facilities are able to remove 98% of these particles, but the remaining 2% make their way towards natural waters, adding up to 2 million tonnes in plastic microfibers to natural waters per year. Synthetic textile fibers, mainly polyester, polyethylene, acrylic, and elastane, have been found in significant amounts in open waters and in marine sediments, meaning that they end up being widely dispersed throughout the marine environment.

When it comes to laundry, doing less can actually mean doing more for the environment.

What can be done?

As is the case with other plastic-based materials, synthetic textiles aren’t going away anytime soon. In 2018, the global synthetic fiber market was valued at 101 billion USD, which is expected to grow by 7% each year over the 2019 to 2025 period. As research and development on new synthetic fibers continues, we can expect to have higher quality, better performing fabrics that can make our lives easier. But, as the average piece of synthetic clothing can release upwards of 700 000 plastic particles in its lifetime, it’s important to try to mitigate the impact of these products as much as possible.

Unlike many other types of pollution, individuals can directly control their personal impact with some simple steps.

  • Choose natural or semi-synthetic textiles.

If the option is available to you and within budget, purchasing natural or semi-synthetic fabrics is a great way to prevent releasing microplastics to the environment. In most instances, semi-synthetic textiles can provide the same unique characteristics as synthetic fabrics, but at a lesser environmental cost. Also, choosing to purchase higher quality long-lasting items, as opposed to cheaply-made items, can reduce the amount of plastic pollution generated from your wardrobe.

  • Install a microplastic filter on your washing machine.

Although they can be expensive or difficult to install, filters attached to the outflow of a washing machine have been shown to reduce microfiber pollution. These filters, such as the Lint VUV-R or Filtrol, require regular cleaning and the fibers that build up must be thrown in the trash. It’s hard to know which one of these devices is the most effective as they’ve yet to be subjected to standardized testing, and they’re fairly new. Plus, temperature, detergent use and type, type of washing machine, and the nature of the clothing being washed equally impact their efficiency. But preliminary tests do show that these filters are a can at least trap some of the plastic microfibers generated in domestic washing machines.

  • Use laundry bags and balls.

Microfiber-filtering wash bags, such as the Guppyfriend laundry bag, can be used to hold your synthetic items, trapping any plastic microfibers that may be released. Similarly, laundry balls, such as the Cora Ball, have been specially designed to capture microfibers floating around in your washing machine or dryer. These options are easier to use, cost less up front, and can be a great option for those using shared laundry facilities (such as in an apartment building or laundromat). However, laundry balls have been reported to cause damage to more delicate fabrics, and similarly to external microplastic filters, there are no standardized methods to measure their exact efficacy.

  • Use a front-loading washing machine.

Likely due to their geometry, front-loading washing machines lead to less turbulence and friction, and have shown to reduce microfiber pollution. If you’re looking to replace your current washing machine and you have the choice, opt for a front-loading machine instead of top-loading.

  • Do full loads of laundry.

Instead of washing just a few items at a time, wait until you have enough to do a full load. When a washing machine is only partly full, it allows for more turbulence and friction to be created. This means that more microfibers can break off from your clothing and other textiles, leading to more plastic pollution and ageing your items. Similarly, avoid the delicate cycle.

  • Wash at colder temperatures and for shorter cycles.

Washing synthetic textiles at high temperatures, or for long periods of time, can further weaken the fibers, causing more microplastics to break off. Washing at cold temperatures and for shorter cycles can save money and time, reduce microplastic pollution, and keep your items in better shape for longer.

  • Wash less.

Instead of washing your clothes after each wear, first try letting items air-out overnight, or spot treating individual stains and marks. Obviously, this doesn’t, or shouldn’t, apply to everything, but washing your items less can save you time and money in the long run, as well as being a great way to prevent microplastics from being released to the environment.

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