Microplastics, small pieces typically less than a few millimetres in size, are a big part of the problem of plastic waste in the environment and microfibres from clothing are a major source of them. Whether shed from general abrasion, from laundering or from the breakdown of irresponsibly discarded garments, microfibres are polluting our oceans, our land and our freshwater.
Already significant, we also know this form of pollution is a growing problem. Plastic fibres account for about two-thirds of the more than 100 Mt a year of fibres we currently produce and we continue to increase their production year-on-year.
Important problems demand our proper attention and a measured response, not just the knee-jerk reactions of those anxious to be seen to be doing something or to promote their own agenda. There are already signs that inappropriate “solutions” are being implemented that will create different kinds of pollution.
There is a lot to do. We must begin by understanding the mechanisms by which the plastic microfibres escape to unwanted places, the nature of their impact when they arrive and the consequences, good and bad, of any proposed alternatives to their use.
Early research has indicated that the type of plastic has an impact on the shedding of microfibres; acrylic fibres appear to shed more readily than polyester, for instance. Fabric construction is another factor; fleeces shed large fibres more readily than tight weaves, but the high degree of rubbing in the latter causes small pieces of fibre to break away. Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation breaks down polymer chains, weakens the fibres and increases the likelihood of shedding over time. Laundering is a big factor; a high degree of agitation and the use of harsh detergents can boost the release of microfibres.
The effects of plastic microfibres on the environment, on the food chain and on water are not yet well understood. How do these waste materials break down and if so do they release toxins? Are pathogenic microorganisms encouraged to proliferate on the surface of these waste particles? How commonly are the materials ingested by animals? Basic investigations have hinted at detrimental effects, such as stunted growth and diminished reproduction, in fish that ingest microplastics and shown that ingestion is common, but much more research remains to be done.
One solution would be to replace plastic fibres with natural ones. However, natural fibres also pose problems for the environment. Vegans and animal rights activists have long argued that the rearing of livestock makes a big contribution to the damage we do to the environment, whether its for meat or fibres and furs, and they campaign for the use of plastic fibres. Crops for plant-based fibres need agricultural land and irrigation, often in places already desperately short of food and drinking water, and frequently require the application of pesticides that themselves escape to cause damage to the surrounding land, rivers and oceans.
My plea for an intelligent response is not prevarication, this problem is urgent and we need to do more to understand all of these issues quickly, instead it is an appeal for us to form balanced views of all the pros and cons of each approach, and to do what we can to limit the existing problem while we do. We need to re-engineer yarns and fabrics to limit the shedding of fibres. We need to design products from the outset for re-use and recycling, and create an infrastructure that makes sure textiles are recycled. We need to reduce the impact of laundering, by adding filters to washing machines and designing products that need less frequent washing.
We need to learn to use (and use again) all materials responsibly, and we need to apply the innovation, flexibility and creativity that are the foundations of the technical textiles sector to the manufacture of all apparel, adding value not only to the product, but also to the whole planet.
Nick Butler, Editor Technical Textiles International