"These fibers, made from polyester or other popular synthetics, often linger in the environment, just like plastic packaging that coats so many of the world’s beaches. They also bond to chemical pollutants in the environment, such as DDT and PCB. Additionally, the fact that the textiles from which they are shed are often treated with waterproofing agents, stain- or fire-resistant chemicals or synthetic dyes, proves them to be harmful to organisms that ingest them. In fact, we consciously or unconsciously consume microfibers through our food and drink. As recently published studies indicate some microfibers floating in the air could be settling in our lungs. Clothing retailers, textile companies, environmental nonprofits and others around the world are striving hard to understand the problem and craft solutions."
Apparels, produced from natural fibers, have for a long time, been linked to environmental ills, such as water and air pollution, not to mention use of land, water and pesticides. However, recent research has indicated that apparel made wholly or partially from synthetic textiles also produce a type of microplastic known as microfibers, which shed during normal use and laundering.
These fibers, made from polyester or other popular synthetics, often linger in the environment, just like plastic packaging that coats so many of the world’s beaches. They also bond to chemical pollutants in the environment, such as DDT and PCB. Additionally, the fact that the textiles from which they are shed are often treated with waterproofing agents, stain- or fire-resistant chemicals or synthetic dyes, proves them to be harmful to organisms that ingest them. In fact, we consciously or unconsciously consume microfibers through our food and drink. As recently published studies indicate some microfibers floating in the air could be settling in our lungs. Clothing retailers, textile companies, environmental nonprofits and others around the world are striving hard to understand the problem and craft solutions.
In 2004, a team of researchers led by Richard Thompson from the University of Plymouth in the UK documented and quantified the occurrence of microplastics in marine environment. This operation also involved collecting sediments from around 20 coastal sites in the UK. As a part of the study, published in Science, researchers also collected surface water samples and compared the microfiber contents from samples taken decades prior. They observed an increase in fibrous synthetic material over time that corresponded with the uptick in synthetic fiber production since the 1970s.
One of Thompson’s graduate students, Mark Anthony Browne, conducted a study that looked at the sources of both the fibre and microfibers in coastal areas. He collected samples of beach sediment from around the world. He also washed polyester apparel in order to quantify the fibers those items shed into laundry wastewater.
Browne’s 2011 paper based on that research made two disturbing revelations. First, samples taken near wastewater disposal sites had 250 per cent more microplastic than those from reference sites and the type of microplastic fibers in the samples were mainly polymers often used in synthetic apparel, suggesting fibers were eluding filters in wastewater treatment plants and being released with treated effluent. Second, a single polyester fleece jacket could shed as many as 1,900 of these tiny fibers each time it’s washed. Browne, therefore, concluded synthetic apparel is a major source of microfibers in the environment.
Five years later, a Vermont-based nonprofit focused on ocean protection, led a study of microfiber pollution across an entire watershed The Rozalia Project, as the study involved collection of water samples from the mouth of the Hudson River to where it meets the Atlantic in Manhattan. Based in part on Browne’s study, the organisation expected an increase in microfiber content around the treatment plants. However, there was no significant difference in concentration of fibers from the alpine region to agricultural center of New York and the high population areas of Manhattan and New Jersey.
That surprised the group’s director, Rachael Miller, who expected cities to be microfiber hot spots. It suggested fibers might be entering surface waters from the air and from septic system drainfields in rural areas without municipal sewage systems. Another revelation was microfibers spiked at a sample site near a popular trailhead running along a tributary to the Hudson. Miller suspects this to be due the synthetic fabrics that the hikers wore, which shed fibers from clothing as they scramble up the trail.
From sinks to sources
Industry journal Textile World reveals demand for polyester has grown faster in the last 20 years than the demand for wool, cotton and other fibers. By 2030, demand is expected to be 75 per cent of global apparel fiber production or 107 million tonne. All textiles, including carpeting and upholstery, produce microfibers. So do commercial fishing nets. But as apparel is laundered frequently and a huge quantity is purchased, it is the source that researchers and policy makers are focusing on.
Krystle Moody, textile industry consultant says athleisure wear relies heavily on synthetic textiles due to its moisture wicking and durability characteristics, price is the biggest driver behind synthetics use. As Jeffery Silberman, Professor and Chairperson of Textile Development and Marketing with the Fashion Institute of Technology at the State University of New York states a poly-cotton blend is generally far cheaper than cotton but doesn’t look or feel appreciably different to most consumers.
The main culprit for this is recycling. Many brands sell fleece jackets and base layers, for example, made from used PET water bottles. Synthetic textiles made from recycled polymers have less tenacity and yarn strength than those made from virgin polyester.
A stream of other studies have also found microfibers in effluent from wastewater plants, in the digestive tracts of market fish, throughout riversheds and in air samples. Although most research has focused only on synthetic fibers, natural fibers such as cotton and wool, and semi-synthetics such as rayon should not be totally ignored. Even though they degrade more quickly than polyester, they can be treated with relevant chemicals that can move up the food chain if the fibres are consumed before they degrade.
It’s clear microfibers are everywhere and our clothes are playing a big role. We know microfibers, just like other shapes of microplastics, bond with toxins they encounter in the environment, and lab studies show clear harm to small organisms that ingest them. Still emerging is an understanding of impacts on the wider environment and on human health.