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Reducing microplastics: Research and what we can do now

Industry in Focus, Markets | July 1, 2023 | By: Kelly Hartog

Plastic breaks down in the oceans into microplastics, which are threatening the food web. Photo: Naja Bertolt Jensen on Unsplash

When synthetic textiles and clothing are washed—at both the industrial and the personal level—they shed small plastic particles known as microfibers that make their way into our ecosystem. Microfibers make up more than a third of the type of pollution in our oceans called microplastics, as estimated by the International Union for Conservationof Nature and Natural Resources in 2017.

In 2020 Australia’s national science council “conservatively” estimated 14.4 million metric tons (31.7 billion pounds) of microplastics on the world’s ocean floor. These particles, which can contain toxins, aren’t visible to the naked eye; neither are they biodegradable. Once released into the environment, they are extremely difficult to eradicate. When plankton, at the base of the food web, ingest them, the plastic blocks their digestive tract and often kills them. The particles are also ingested by other aquatic organisms, including shellfish, and end up in our food and drinking water.  

Unfortunately, both regulations on and research into the effects of microfibers are nascent, says Charlie Cox, manager for microplastics solutions at Ocean Wise Conservation Association in Canada. 

Areas that could be regulated

“Regulating, for example, around materials like shedding thresholds, are being discussed,” he says, “but we don’t quite yet have enough knowledge to implement them.” What do exist are measures around microfiber filters in washing machines. 

France has established a mandate, set to go into effect in 2025, requiring that every new washing machine has a microfiber filter. 

In the United States, California’s legislature considered a bill this spring to require new washing machines to have microfiber filters by 2029, but the bill is on hold. Similar initiatives were being discussed in Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. 

“From a science perspective, this is something that we know works,” says Cox. “The sooner that these regulations get implemented, the better, because we can see the reduction in pollution from using filters.” 

“All textiles shed”

In 2019, Ocean Wise partnered with several apparel companies—MEC, Patagonia, REI, Arc’teryx, Aritzia and Joe Fresh—on a study that tested the shedding rates of different fabrics in the companies’ garments. 

The result? 

“All textiles shed,” says Cox. “It doesn’t matter if it’s polyester, if it’s nylon, if it’s a natural fiber.” The study revealed that polyester sheds the most but that there is a large shedding range between the different polyester garments, and most shedding came from thicker textiles. 

“We learned that we need to go deeper into the textile design features and the construction to really understand what parameters are having the biggest influence,” says Cox.

However, the industry is actively searching for alternatives to plastic-based fibers. Researchers are currently exploring natural fibers and then altering aspects of their chemistry to perform as a synthetic fabric. 

But according to a study published in May on the PLoS ONE website, some fibers that are compostable under high heat, such as polylactic acid (PLA), may not degrade quickly in colder ocean environments.

“There’s a theory that natural fibers aren’t derived from petroleum products—that they’re naturally occurring, so hopefully are not harmful and are also biodegradable,” says Cox, “but we don’t actually know that. For example, we don’t know that cotton is totally benign if it’s in the ocean.”

Ocean Wise is developing a study comparing cotton and polyester to learn whether there is a difference in each textile’s toxicity to organisms. “We hope we will be provided some science that might say we should put our eggs in this natural fiber basket.”

One company taking action to find alternative materials is Munich, Germany-based Insempra. In mid-2022, Insempra invested in Solena Materials Ltd., of London, England, to create protein-based fibers that reduce environmental impacts, including microplastics. 

“Solena uses computational design to develop new classes of synthetic proteins to produce high-performance clothing fibers, which can absorb large amounts of kinetic energy,” says Insempra’s marketing and communications representative, Nicole Laurence. “Insempra will speed up the development and production of these synthetic proteins on an industrial scale, offering better, bio-based solutions to petrochemical-sourced, nonbiodegradable materials and fibers extracted from nature or animals.” 

She cited silk as one such material that is routinely used in the industry. (Editor’s note: See pages 12 and 24 for coverage of other fabrics derived from “alternative” plant sources.) 

What can work now

Other potential solutions may come from work by Forum for the Future—an international sustainability nonprofit with offices in the United Kingdom, the United States, India and Singapore. According to a study on manufacturing facilities published in February by the Forum, most shedding occurs in garments and during the dyeing and wet processes. As a result, the Forum recommended that manufacturers shift to dry processes. 

Ocean Wise also partnered with Samsung and Patagonia on a study that showed using cold and gentle cycles in a washing machine can reduce shedding by up to 70%. Select Samsung washing machine models from 2022 have the new Less Microfiber Cycle, which uses less heat and abrasion to wash clothes. Previous washer models that are Wi-Fi enabled are expected to receive a software update later this year that adds the cycle. Samsung has also released an external microfiber filter for any washing machine—made from recycled plastics, of course—and so has the organization PlanetCare. 

Cox notes that research is also looking at dryer vents, because many tumble dryers are stripping fibers from clothing and pumping them directly into the environment. 

And while recycling is often a go-to solution in other industries, Cox says it’s not that simple for textiles, which are often a blend of fibers.

One of the best ways to address the pollution is through wastewater treatment. “We take [wastewater treatment plants] for granted here in the West, but it’s something that should be a priority—to get proper treatment of the water that’s flowing into the ocean because 95% of microplastics can be captured through treatment plants.”

The difficulty, of course, lies in what to do with the plastic particles at that point, as it’s hard to get venture capitalists to invest in repurposing them. “They can be secured in a landfill, but that’s really not an innovative solution,” he says. “At least it’s better than fly-tipping [illegal waste dumping].” 

Textile manufacturers can also look at washing in-house before fabrics ever make it to market—by creating an infrastructure with the right filters to capture those fibers at the initial source, which is when most shedding occurs. For instance, Inditex and Jeanologia have developed the Air Fiber Washer to remove and collect microfibers during garment fabrication to lessen the amount of shedding in domestic laundering.  

Overall, there is ongoing research on everything from how the industry can use the least toxic materials to designing materials that shed less and from microbes that can consume plastic to how to more accurately measure the amount of plastic particles found in textile wastewater.

“It’s super complex,” says Cox. 

Kelly Hartog is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles, Calif. 

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