In the name of more flexibility and sustainability, the textile industry is moving from cotton-based to non-cotton-based products. The growth of synthetic fiber-based textiles has been around 44% in the last five years compared to the 14% growth for cotton textiles. Synthetic fibers, especially polyester, nylon, and acrylic, are cheap, efficient, and very durable making them a preferred material for textile and clothing manufacturing. As all those fibers are eventually plastics, made as a byproduct of fossil fuel production, it has a great potential to harm the environment and human health. Hence, microfiber shredding from synthetic textiles is becoming an impending problem.
What is Microfiber?
Microplastics are tiny plastic pieces less than <5 mm in length. Textiles are the largest source of primary microplastics (specifically manufactured to be smaller than 5mm), accounting for 34.8% of global microplastic pollution termed microfiber.
Microfibers are small fragments that are actively shed from textiles throughout their lifecycle. These fragments are often composed of plastic and derived from synthetic clothing. Microfiber shedding is of cause for serious environmental concern, with the release of primary synthetic fiber fragments from textiles estimated to be 500,000 metric tonnes annually. These fibres detach from our clothes during washing and go into the wastewater. The wastewater then goes to sewage treatment facilities as the fibres are so tiny, many pass-through filtration processes and make their way into our rivers and seas.
The fragmentation of fibers into microfibers occurs based on a variety of factors and processes, such as textile construction, finishing processes, washing methods, the age of the textiles as well as the fiber types.In a study conducted by the Ocean Wise Conservation Association, it was found that polyester textile samples shed the most through laundering. Similarly, plant-based fibers such as cotton and wool textiles were also found to shed significant amounts of microfibers.
Environmental and Health Hazards from Microfibers
Microfibers shredded from the textiles and clothing are so tiny and light weight, they can stay afloat in the air and lead to human lung via breathing. Most of the microfibers are shredded while washing, be it the industrial washing or domestic washing in households. These microfibers eventually end up in the sewage system and finally pumped to the ocean. Due to the tiny size of microplastics, they can be ingested by marine animals which can have catastrophic effects on the species and the entire marine ecosystem. And through the food web microfibers can lead to human body as well as we take sea food.
Microfibers can absorb chemicals present in the water or sewage sludge, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and carcinogenic Persistent Organic Pollutants (PoPs). They can also contain chemical additives, from the manufacturing phase of the materials, such as plasticisers (a substance added to improve plasticity and flexibility of a material), flame retardants and antimicrobial agents (a chemical that kills or stops the growth of microorganisms like bacteria). These chemicals can leach from the plastic into the oceans or even go straight into the bloodstream of animals that ingest the microfibres.
Once ingested, microfibres can cause gut blockage, physical injury, changes to oxygen levels in cells in the body, altered feeding behavior and reduced energy levels, which impacts growth and reproduction. Due to this, the balance of whole ecosystems can be affected, with the impacts travelling up the food chain and sometimes making their way into the food we eat! It has been suggested that people that eat European bivalves (such as mussels, clams and oysters) can ingest over 11,000 microplastic particles per year.
How Microfibers Can be Controlled?
In order to address microfiber pollution, solutions that reduce microfiber shedding and prevent the release of these fragments into the environment are essential; once microfibers enter the environmental ecosystem, they are very difficult to remove and can remain unchanged and persist for years.
There are a variety of global initiatives underway that are working to provide innovative solutions to this ongoing problem within the textile industry. Examples include The Microfiber Consortium (TMC), which is striving to reduce microfiber shedding within textile manufacturing and product lifecycles, and the Cross Industry Agreement (CIA), which seeks to address microplastic release during laundering.2
While international collaboration is essential in reducing microfiber pollution at the industry and associated levels, the need for individual, at-home solutions is also vital since the shedding of textiles in-home laundry washing machines is a significant source of aquatic microfiber contamination.3 For instance, a single clothing item in just one laundry cycle can release as many as 120,000 to 730,000 microfibers, much of which ends up in large bodies of water.3
To reduce microfiber shedding at home, the National Environmental Education Foundation recommends solutions such as switching to cold water washing cycles, decreasing the frequency of washing, and installing a microfiber filter into washing machines.
The fashion industry needs to take responsibility for minimizing future microfibre releases. Brands can have the most impact if they consider microfiber release at the design and manufacturing stages. Designers should consider several criteria to minimize the environmental impact of a synthetic garment:
- Use textiles that have been tested to ensure the minimal release of synthetic microfibres into the environment.
- Ensure the product is durable so it remains out of the landfill if possible
- Consider how garment and textile waste could be recycled to achieve a circular system.
During manufacture, several methods can be applied to reduce microfibre sheddings such as brushing the material, using laser and ultrasound cutting, coatings, and pre-washing garments. The length of the yarn, type of weave, and method for finishing seams may all be factors affecting shedding rates. However, more research from brands needs to occur to determine best practices in reducing microfibres and creating industry-wide solutions.
Source: National Environmental Education Foundation. (2021). What you should know about microfiber pollution.
Unfortunately, microfiber pollution is not limited to the aquatic environments; fiber fragments can also contaminate terrestrial environments such as soil and land as well as airborne fragment emissions in factories which can lead to adverse health impacts such as chronic lung disease in workers. In conclusion, the importance of reducing microfiber shedding cannot be overstated. Action is required at the individual, organizational and policy levels to take action towards the necessary changes to eliminate the issue of microfiber shedding within the textile industry and protect human and environmental health.
- Our clothes shed microfibres – here’s what we can do, Fashion Revolution.
- Microfiber shedding from textiles: environmental concerns, Sustain Fashion.