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Researchers investigate nanoplastics

Swatches | June 1, 2024 | By:

Particles of nanoplastics on the surface of the fleece fiber are visible under a scanning electron microscope. The particles detach during washing, so that after four washes, there are hardly any left. 

Researchers at the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa) have taken the study of microplastics to the next level—nanoplastics.

Empa investigators teamed up with colleagues in China to study and measure the source and release of nanoplastics, or plastic particles smaller than 1,000 nanometers, collected from washing 12 different kinds of polyester fabrics, including microfiber, satin, jersey, twill, terry and fleece. They found that the amount of particles released per fabric decreased significantly with each washing, but not all the released particles that had appeared to be nanoplastics in fact were nanoplastics; up to 90% were even smaller poly particles, oligomer molecules.

“With other plastics, studies have already shown that nanoparticulate oligomers are more toxic than nanoplastics,” says professor Bernd Nowack, Ph.D. “This is an indication that this should be investigated more closely.” Their origin is another potential area of research.

Researchers led by professor Bernd Nowack, Ph.D., investigated the release of nanoparticles during the washing of polyester textiles. Images: Empa

The researchers next want to investigate the fibers that are released when renewable textiles are washed. “Semi-synthetic textiles such as viscose or lyocell are being touted as a replacement for polyester,” says Nowack. “But we don’t yet know whether they are really better when it comes to releasing fibers.”

The research was published in Nature Water in February 2024.

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