For years there has been talk about installing filters in washing machines, to stop leaching microplastics. But putting all emphasis on laundering is not necessarily the best way forward. This also forces the consumer to bear the burden of solving the issue, instead of dealing with the root of the problem.(Photo: Shutterstock / NTB)
Microplastics or microfibers: Does anyone really get what this is about?
OPINION: What we do know, is that all synthetic clothing and materials, sooner or later, will become microplastics, a «time-delayed» pollution bomb. And thus, they will ultimately become a problem for seabirds, and us.
IngunGrimstad Kleppprofessor in Clothing and Sustainability, Consumption Research Norway/ OsloMet
A new report on microfibers in waterways is gaining attention, as it claims the
results show more natural fibers than synthetic ones, and therefore demonizing
microplastics is wrong. However, a very recent study on the intestines of seabirds
gives a different conclusion: Fossil-based particles do cause harm.
report from The Microfibre Consortium (TMC), together with the Norwegian
Research Center/NORCE has analyzed samples taken along the coast of Kenya and
Tanzania, and found that of 2403 textile fibers in the water, 55 per cent were of
natural origin, 37 per cent were synthetic and 8 per cent viscose/rayon-based.
Every piece of plastic ever made is still in existence.
conclusion is therefore that synthetics should not be called out as the main
problem, as natural fibers also need to shoulder their share of the blame for
backdrop, since around 2015, when microfibers emerged as an environmental
issue, there has been a heated debate around whether the plastic-based microfibers
(called microplastics, see info box) are both more prevalent and represent a
higher reason for concern.
This goes to whether shedding of microplastics
should be included in environmental labelling-schemes or if synthetics clothes
should include a warning-label.
question this study raises, is what is being conflated here? As stated, «many
fashion brands and activists have suggested increased use of natural fibres as
one potential solution to microfibre pollution on the grounds that they
biodegrade more quickly».
Facts about microplastics
Synthetic clothing is plastic. The microfibers that either shed or break down into smaller and smaller fragments, are – when their source is plastic-based – called microplastics, a microplastic being a small piece of plastic debris that measures 5mm or less.
A microfiber, on the other hand, has several definitions, but refers to both natural and synthetic fibers, but is also used about the synthetic material in the washing-cloths we buy for cleaning.
Microfiber, when related to unintended shedding, is sometimes called “fiber fragment”.
Global fiber-diet 2022:
Cotton, linen, hemp: 31,3 per cent (cotton is 24 per cent)
Wool & Animal Fibers: Less than 2 per cent
Plastics/synthetics: 72 per cent
Viscose/rayon: 7,2 per cent
(Source: Textile Exchange)
the sector is the goal
We have all along talked about «shrinking» the use of synthetics and the whole sector, not replacing
one fiber with another. Even though we also want to see better use of fibers
and materials that today go to waste, such as much strong wool, fish skins, and
other materials dumped in the sea or just left to rot.
the message from TMC is what the fast fashion industry wants to hear: «We need
more research before we can conclude». This translates into: Let’s continue a
7 per cent annual growth of synthetics, and fast fashion as a system with its
exploitation and profitability.
The only sand in the machinery currently are
microplastics and the growing concern surrounding them. France’s
Anti-waste and Circular Economy Law states that
clothing containing 50 per cent or more synthetic fibers by weight (either recycled or
virgin) must have a warning about microplastic shedding on its care
For years there has been talk about
installing filters in washing machines, to stop leaching microplastics. But
putting all emphasis on laundering is not necessarily the best way forward. This
also forces the consumer to bear the burden of solving the issue, instead of
dealing with the root of the problem.
It’s in the air
Washing is just one way in
which microplastics are released in the environment, we must also consider
tumble drying, wearing and using textiles.
Insights can be gained into fibre origin by assessing whether or
not the fibres were dyed.
us to another stumbling-block; the dyeing and finishing processes for textiles.
Many of these are fossil-based, such as the finishes that we know as PFAS, and
other highly problematic ones that give water- or dirt-repellency (which is one
of the features of PFAS). If a natural fiber is treated, it will biodegrade
and in practice, natural fibers are biodegradable, depending on the marine or
terrestrial conditions, this may happen faster or slower. The problem with
synthetic fibers is that they will never biodegrade, but just keep breaking
down into smaller and smaller pieces. Every piece of plastic ever made is still
there is no question that natural fibers biodegrade. Fungus evolved on earth for
Prior to this, vast amounts of forest material slowly turned into
fossil carbon, hundreds of millions of years ago. Once fungus evolved nutrients
became «cyclable», and plant- and animal-based debris biodegraded. Fungus that «eat» fossil-based materials exist, but are not prevalent in nature.
scientists claim they are the solution and wish to disperse them to solve the
plastic-conundrum; however, more research is needed before we unleash them.
As the «dust» settles, maybe we need to rephrase the research questions. From «how
much?» to «how bad?».
canary in the coal mine
to the seabird whose intestines are in trouble. Scientists at the Natural
History Museum in London announced the discovery of a new disease caused solely
by the ingestion of plastic, a condition called plasticosis: a fibrotic
disease caused by small pieces of plastic inflaming the digestive tract.
Persistent inflammation damages the tissues, which become scarred and deformed.
«What is really alarming is that microplastics enter
cells and interfere with cell nuclei, which raises concerns about potential DNA
damage. Another alarming example is that they can interfere with the digestion
and absorption of important nutrients.»
Thus, of greater importance,
is the harm caused by different types of microfibres, rather than their
In the meantime, a simple
way forward is to tax all synthetic clothes and materials, based on weight. Tests
on shedding so far have shown great fluctuations:
Some shed a lot during the
first wash, others after the fabric becomes «tired» and old. All shed in use,
even in incineration, but again, much will change over time, with spinning
techniques, frequency of use and depending on what type of textile.
What we do know, is that
all synthetic clothing and materials, sooner or later, will become
microplastics, a «time-delayed» pollution bomb. And thus, they will ultimately
become a problem for seabirds, and us.