What are microfibres?
Synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon and acrylic make up the majority of our wardrobes. In fact, 60% of all clothing made contains polyester. These fabrics are actually a type of plastic and due to friction, when washed they shed tiny strands of plastic less than 5mm long, called plastic microfibres. Like microbeads, they’re a type of microplastic pollution, ending up in our rivers, oceans and food. They're also very difficult to see which is why its taken us so long to realise they're such a problem.
Why are microfibres an issue?
Well, in a nutshell, scientists estimate that 1/3 of all primary microplastics in our oceans come from washing textiles, including our clothes. In fact, they're thought to be the largest contributor of microplastics in our oceans. According to Ellen MacArthur Foundation, this means around half a million tonnes of plastic microfibres a year contribute to ocean pollution – 16 times more than the plastic microbeads from cosmetics. Unlike microbeads, they can't simply be removed from our supply chain.
22 million tonnes
Microfibre pollution is on the increase. Ellen MacArthur Foundation report that 22 million tonnes of microfibres will be added to our oceans between 2015 and 2055.
They're in our food
Plastic microfibres are ending up in our waterways, ecosystems and in our food and drink. They've been found in global oceans, rivers, agricultural soils, marine and freshwater animals, and products sold for human consumption including: fish, honey, sea salt and drinking water. A recent study in Austria studied human stool samples and found microplastics in all of them. This suggests that plastic could be found widespread in our food chain.
Truth be told, we aren't 100% sure about the biological effects of microfibre pollution. This is why it's so important that more research takes place. We know that previous studies showed that plastic can lead to chemical and biological changes in ocean organisms. We also know that microfibres have a unique shape and associated chemicals, and can attract pathogens and pollutants throughout their life cycle.
How are microfibres getting into our oceans?
Microfibres are released from synthetic clothes during their production, use and also every time they're washed. As our clothes rub against each other in the wash, the friction causes microfibres to shed away from the fabric. The water from washing machines drains away into our water systems where it is transported to Waste Water Treatment Centres. This water is put through a filtration system where 65–92% of microfibres are collected.
However, because they're so fine, many of these microfibres escape. They then end up in sewage sludge which is either used as fertilisers in agriculture or dumped straight into the ocean. Alternatively, the water is put through a sewage treatment screen which 'cleans' the water. Again, the problem is that because microfibres are so small, the screen isn’t able to collect them all. This treated water ends up back in our drinking water systems and also in our rivers and oceans.
How many microfibres are released per wash?
This is a difficult question to answer as many studies have come back with different results. For example, one study found a 5kg load of washing can create 6 million to 17.7 million plastic microfibres (Italian National Research Council) whereas Professor Richard Thompson from Plymouth University found that certain fabrics could release around 730,000 synthetic fibres per wash. We think the reason for the big difference in results is because of the different test conditions. This is why it's so important that more research is conducted to create a more accurate picture of the issue. Also, the amount of microfibres released will depend on what type of fabric you're washing, as well as the clothing quality, the water temperature, the type of detergent and the type of washing machine. Confusing, right?
Microfibres cause 16x more plastic pollution than microbeads from cosmetics.
Hubbub - sourced from Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
What research exists?
There are several studies that have already taken place and many that are still going on.
In the UK, Dr. Richard Thompson and Imogen Napper of Plymouth University have been leading an extensive study into marine plastics, focusing particularly on microfibres and microplastics released from tyres. As of 2018, they've been awarded a further £200,000 from the UK government to continue their research. We've been working from several studies such as the Ellen MacArthur report and the IUCN report, as well as speaking with experts, including: Fauna & Flora International; Plastic Soup Foundation who were part of the EU Life+ Mermaids project; Dr Katy Stevens from the European Outdoor Group and Microfiber Consortium; and the founders of both Guppy Friend Bag and Cora Ball, amongst others.
Visit 'Research and Supporters' to see some of the research we've been using and who supports our campaign.
What about natural fibres?
Sadly, it isn't as simple as a mass movement away from plastic and towards natural fibres. Although we know that natural fibres do biodegrade, we don't know how long this process takes. In fact, scientists have found natural fibres in the digestive tracts of animals such as terrestrial birds. The production process of fabrics made from natural fibres also has it's own other environmental issues such as increased water usage and risks of chemical pollution. If you do want to make a switch away from synthetics, look out for organic fabrics as these have proven to have a more positive impact on our planet.
So what can we do about it?
The good news is that until we know more about the issue, there are simple steps you can take at home to take care of your clothes and reduce the likelihood of microfibre pollution. Click here to find out more.
We passionately believe that the solution to microfibre pollution lies in the collaboration of different industry experts and a cross-sector, systematic approach. That's why we've created our 'Industry Call To Action' which you can view here. It includes our wish list of actions for fashion manufacturers and clothing retailers, white goods manufacturers, waste water treatment centres and academics.