Plastic that ends up in the environment does not biodegrade, it fragmentizes into smaller pieces. These tiny pieces, or microplastics, are <5mm and usually not visible to the naked eye. They also cannot be blocked through the waste water treatment plants and, consequently, microplastics end up in rivers, lakes, seas and oceans.
Nowadays, around 62% of our clothing consists of synthetic materials or a mix of natural and synthetic fabrics. Synthetic materials are widely chosen by the textile and fashion industry because of their availability, durability, resistance, and affordability. These fabrics dominate the market since the mid-1990s when they overtook cotton and became the dominant material.
Annual global consumption of synthetic materials for apparel increased over the last two decades by more than 80%. Since 1990, the production of synthetic material increased from 20% to 60% of the market, from 9 million tons a year to 63,2 million tons. The prediction below shows that it keeps on rising.
Microplastics are pieces of plastic smaller than five millimeters which can be especially harmful to the environment. They can be primary or secondary. Primary microplastics are directly released into the environment as tiny plastic particles. Secondary microplastics, meanwhile, originate mostly from the degradation of large plastic waste into smaller fragments once exposed to the environment.
When manufactured, washed, and worn, clothes & textiles made from synthetic materials release small plastic pieces called microfibers. These microfibers are so small that they can be barely or not at all seen with the naked eye. Microfibers go down the drain and enter sewer systems, which are not designed to filter them from wastewater. In this way, these plastic fibers enter the environment.
Friction plays a very important role when it comes to microfiber release. Both during washing and wearing, friction will increase the release of synthetic fibers from textiles.
In 2011, ecologist Mark Anthony Browne, who was studying the accumulation of microplastics on shorelines worldwide, was the first to conclude that 85% of the human-made materials discovered on the shorelines were microfibers. He matched these microfibers to the types of material used in clothing, such as nylon and acrylic. He showed that a single garment might lose >1,900 fibers per wash.
In September of 2016, researchers Imogen Napper and Prof. Richard Thompson from the University of Plymouth published a research paper about the loss of fibers when washing clothing made from polyester, acrylic and a mixture of polyester and cotton at different temperatures (30 and 40 degrees), using different detergents. The English study was published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin and showed that more than 700,000 plastic fibers are released for every 6 kg of laundry washed.
Dris et al. (2015) proved the presence of microplastics (mostly fibers) in atmospheric fallout for the first time (at the rate of 29–280 particles m2 /day). A Californian study found that 9-110 kg of microfibers was being discharged in wastewater treatment plants’ effluent daily.
According to a report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), microfibers are one of the biggest sources of primary microplastics that are directly released into the environment in the form of small particulates. Close to two-thirds (63.1%) of the on average 3.2 million tons per year that are released as primary microplastics into the environment is due to the laundry of synthetic textiles (34.8%), and to the erosion of tires while driving (28.3%).
The Mermaids Life+ Project evaluated microfiber release from synthetic clothes during laundry processes with nanotechnology in 2017. The research is explained below.
Between 2014 and 2017, the Plastic Soup Foundation was the dissemination partner of the Mermaids Life+ research (funded by the EU) which had the goal of decreasing the environmental impact of micro and nanoplastic fibers originating from laundry wastewater. This research project was a joint consortium with Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche in Italy, and Polysistec and LEITAT in Spain.
This multidisciplinary consortium aimed to mitigate the environmental impact of micro and nanoplastic particles originating from laundry wastewater on European (sea) ecosystems. It did so by demonstrating and implementing innovative technologies and as well as additives to laundry processes and textile finishing treatments. The final reports of this project can be downloaded here.
The scientific findings of the research were published in Elsevier’s Environmental Pollution Journal in December 2017: ‘Evaluation of microplastic release caused by textile washing processes of synthetic fabrics’.
The most important result was that each 5kg wash of synthetic clothes releases between 6 to 17 million microfibers, an average of 9 million microfibers.
A Handbook for zero microplastics from textiles and laundry for the textile industry was also developed as part of the Mermaids Life+ project.
|Mark A. Browne (2011)|
|Patagonia, University of California (2015)|
|Richard Thompson, University of Plymouth (2016)|
|Mermaids Life+ Project (2014 – 2017)|
IPCB-CNR in Italy is a partner of the Ocean Clean Wash campaign since their collaboration in the Mermaids Life+ Project in 2017. CNR is the reference research center for Plastic Soup Foundation in terms of knowledge about textile and microfiber pollutions: their experience makes them the experts in the field in Europe. Their latest collaboration with Plastic Soup Foundation sought to tackle the microfiber problem through the testing of synthetic clothes from four global fashion brands: Zara, Adidas, Nike, and H&M. The results were presented during the ISPO Conference in Munich and have also been published by Nature.com.
T-shirts from Adidas and Nike, both derived from 100 percent polyester, generated similar numbers of microfibers per wash: 124.05 mg/kg and 125 mg/kg, respectively. A top from H&M containing 65% polyester lost an average of 48.6 mg in microfibers per kg of laundry—still high, but better in relation to the other brands.
The Zara garment, which was made of 100% polyester on the front side & cotton and modal blend on the back, lost so many fibers per wash that it started “disintegrating” after only a few washes – this was quantified as losing an average of 307,6 mg of fibers per kilo of laundry.
Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR) in Italy, is currently investigating a coating of pectin that might reduce the loss of fibers dramatically. Pectin is mostly extracted from suitable agro-by products like citrus peel & apple pomace and is used by the food industry as a natural ingredient because of its gelling, thickening, and stabilizing properties. It is a mainly linear polysaccharide whose principal chemical unit is based on a D-galacturonic acid monomer. Such a polysaccharide represents an interesting biomaterial because it is cheap and abundantly available since it is a waste product of the fruit juice, sunflower oil, and sugar manufacturing processes. Further research on the feasibility of this coating is being currently undertaken. If we can treat synthetic yarns and fabrics with a coating such as pectin-based finishing, the reduction of fiber loss might go up to 80 – 90%.
Microfibers from synthetic textiles have been found everywhere in the environment. Scientists have found them in the Mariana Trench (the deepest point of the ocean), at the top of the Himalayas, among the sediment surrounding beaches, in mangroves, and in Arctic ice.
In 2017, a study of microplastic pollution along the shores of the Hudson River in New York state found that the river carries around 150 million plastic microfibers into the Atlantic ocean every day. These plastic fibers are being eaten by zooplankton and other species such as sea cucumbers, shore crabs, and lugworms, and they are affecting the development of crabs. They have also been found in fish being sold in markets, in wild fish, in farmed and wild mussels, oysters, chicken, in sea salt and even in beer, honey, and cane sugar.
Microfibers are also falling from the sky. According to research, there is every day a fallout of about 2 to 355 microfibers per m² in Paris. Even more, research has proven that we breathe in these microfibers at a rate of 11 microplastics per hour. We ingest more plastic through household dust (carpets, curtains, and textiles) than through mussel consumption. A research carried out in London showed that locals are breathing in millions of microfibers every day. The results showed that from all the microplastics found in the samples, 92% of them were microfibers from synthetic clothing, carpets, and furniture.
Fibers have been found in tap water as well as bottled water and the World Health Organization (WHO) has even launched a health review to investigate the effects of these plastics in humans. Here is a video of how microfibers are entering the bottom of the food chain, while we are at the top of it.
We already know that we eat, drink, and breathe microplastics, as described above in the effects of microfibers in the environment. Furthermore, animal studies have shown that plastics can enter the bloodstream and cross barriers such as the placenta, exposing the developing fetus to these particles. Whether this happens in humans is still unknown, but is currently being investigated by researchers at Utrecht University.
Inhaled plastic microfibers may persist in the lung and as a result, could cause inflammation. It has been hypothesized that this could lead to health effects including reproductive problems, cancer, and DNA damage. Particle pollution such as asbestos and fine dust has long been known to damage lung tissues, leading to cancer, asthma attacks, and other health problems. If inhalation of microplastics is sufficiently high, these plastic particles may cause similar health problems. Multiple research reveals people working with plastic-based textiles and dust are at an increased risk of respiratory problems. Therefore, we ask ourselves: are our lungs able to eliminate these plastic particles we are inhaling, as they do for fine dust? Or do plastic particles accumulate in lung tissue and cause damage? Or is it perhaps possible that the plastics we inhale spread to the rest of our bodies?
Researchers of the ZonMw program ‘Microplastics & Health’ hope to unearth answers to these questions. Three studies on the repercussions of the inhalation of micro-and nanoplastics have been approved by ZonMw, and each has a unique research question. You can read the full abstracts of the research here and the Plastic Health Coalition will regularly report on these projects.
- Are microplastics which have been exposed to exhaust gasses and cigarette smoke more harmful to our lungs than microfibers which have not been exposed to these pollutants? (Prof. dr. Barbro Melgert – RUG)
- How do our lungs respond to microplastics that come from the environment and are therefore heavily weathered? (Dr. Ingeborg Kooter – TNO)
- Are the microplastics that we inhale able to spread from the lungs to other parts of the body? (Dr. Bastien Venzac – UT)
On October 3rd, preliminary results of some of these studies as well as other groundbreaking research findings around plastic & health were revealed during the first-ever Plastic Health Summit, which took place in Amsterdam.
Fransien van Dijk, member of the research team of Prof. dr. Barbro Melgert introduced the preliminary results of the research on the effects of nylon and polyester microfibers in lung cells.
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Every time we wash our synthetic clothes, 9,000,000 plastic microfibers are released per laundry.
An average household generates about 20kg of dust a year, of which 6kg consist of microplastics.
Microfibers have been found in tap water as well as bottled water.
35% of primary microplastics in the ocean come solely from the laundry of synthetic textiles.
We ingest more plastic through household dust from textiles than through mussel consumption.
Know your clothes! Natural fabrics are made of animal or plant-based fibers, while synthetic yarn is man-made and produced from chemicals.
62% of our clothing consists of synthetic materials or a mix of natural & synthetic.
Blends like cotton & polyester release fewer microfibers than 100% polyester.
Wearing polyester clothes releases as many microplastic fibers in the air as through washing.
Microfibers also come from textiles such as carpets, curtains, blankets, and other household items.
Plastic fibers have been found in the sediment surrounding beaches, mangroves, in Arctic ice, at the top of the Himalayas, and in the deepest point of the ocean.
Plastic microfibers have been found in fish in markets, wild fish, farmed & wild mussels, chicken, sea salt and even beer and honey.
Because of friction, microfibers are released from synthetic textiles and end up in the air or in the water through washing.
We are breathing in microfibers, most probably at a rate of 11 microplastics per hour.
Synthetic material production has increased from 20% of the market to 60%; from 9,000,000 tons a year to 63,200,000 tons.