Investigation into ocean-harming microfibres launched

Mistra Future Fashion, a Swedish research programme for sustainable fashion, has launched an investigation into the relation between fabric properties and the shedding of microplastics from polyester fabrics.

Founded in 2011, Mistra Future Fashion aims to deliver insights and solutions that can be used by the fashion industry to improve environmental performance and strengthen global competitiveness.

Investigation into ocean-harming microfibres launched
A microfibre in a Polyp

A current environmental concern in the fashion industry is microplastics. Although most attention has recently been paid to microbeads (the tiny pieces of plastic found in many cosmetic products), microplastics are actually any bits of plastic that are less than five millimetres in diameter, and can come from a variety of sources, including polyester clothing as it is washed. While microbeads have been banned in the USA and the UK government plans to ban them from cosmetic products by the end of 2017, to date there has been little attention paid to microplastics originating from fabric shedding, which can also enter the food chain, as fish and other marine organisms can mistake these fibres for food.

Eunomia Research & Consulting has estimated that 190 thousand tonnes of microplastics from textiles enter the world’s marine ecosystem every year, and fashion companies and other members of the textile industry have been called upon by Dutch fashion line G-Star and the PSF to address plastic microfibres. According to the PSF, the machine-washing of clothes is a big source of plastic pollution in oceans, with small plastic fibres – microfibres – shed by synthetic garments being washed through water treatment plants into waterways.

Research carried out by the campaign ‘Mermaids Ocean Clean Wash’ for G-Star suggests that polyester, acrylic and nylon items are the biggest culprits, with an acrylic scarf shedding 300,000 fibres per wash and a polyester fleece jacket losing almost one million fibres every time it is washed.

Mistra Future Fashion’s new project aims to deliver a framework for the construction and care of polyester fabrics in order to minimise microplastic shedding.

Set up as a pilot study with partner companies Boob Design, Filippa K and H&M, the investigation will be conduced in spring 2017 and the findings could be used for designing a subsequent larger research project surrounding the microplastics problem.

Microplastics: The story so far

The fact that harmful microscopic pieces of plastic are ending up in our oceans has been the focus of many news stories of late. The Department of Health announced in November that it will review the impact of microplastics on human health, following an inquiry by the government’s green watchdog, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC).

The EAC stated in its report that microplastics cause significant damage to the marine ecosystem and called for more research into the impact on human health.

The full extent of the damage that they cause to sea animals, and the humans later consuming them, is still being researched, but studies have already found that marine wildlife is exposed to thousands of tonnes of such plastic every year, and that a plate of six oysters can contain up to 50 particles of the material.

In September, Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom announced plans to stop the sale and manufacture of products containing microbeads, which are the tiny pieces of plastic less than five millimetres wide that are often used as exfoliants in cosmetic and personal care products like face wash, body scrubs and toothpaste.

Being tiny, they slip through waste treatment systems and enter the oceans where, along with larger pieces of plastic that have not entered the waste management process and microfibres from synthetic clothing, they photodegrade, when exposed to the sun’s UV rays, into ever smaller pieces of plastic.

The government review will include a consultation that will then lead to proposed legislation for a ban on microbeads which will then be put before MPs for a vote.

More information about how marine plastic pollution is finding its way back onto our plates can be found in Resource’s feature article.