Microplastics are small plastic pieces of any type of plastic, which are less than 5 mm (0.20 in) in length and are also a subcategory of synthetic microfibers. Microfibers derive from textiles and have linear density less than 1 denier and are one hundred times finer than human hair. Microplastics have made headlines in recent years, as part of global plastic pollution. Whether in Antarctica or in the desert, in the sea or on land, the tiny plastic particles can now be found everywhere. They have also been discovered in shellfish and fish, working their way up the food chain. The largest proportion of these particles stem from the laundering of synthetic textiles and from the abrasion of tyres while driving.
During production, washing, drying and wearing, synthetic clothes release thousands of fibres that break down over time into tiny particles, known as microplastics. The problem is getting worse year by year as global clothing consumption increased by 60% since 2000 and 64% of new textiles are made of synthetic fibres.
Why are microplastics so dangerous? And what options do we have to prevent more microplastic from entering our environment?
Microplastic pollution caused by washing synthetic textiles is a main source of primary microplastics. Several hundred thousand of microfibers are released during one single load of laundry. Most of them are made of plastic, and very few washing machines filter out microplastics. Even wastewater treatment plants cannot filter out everything, which means that still a significant amount of microplastic ends up in the sea, in the soil and even in the air. While we do not yet know all the impacts of microplastics, researchers established that microplastics have a negative impact on the development and recovery of our lungs. It has also been found that toxic and poisonous substances adhere to these fibres and can thus be transported up the food chain, posing hidden dangers.
How can the release of synthetic microfibers be averted?
A permanent solution requires action at many levels, including:
- Production of clothes which shed less microplastics
- Developing better wastewater management systems and washing machine filters
- Buying fewer clothes and washing them less often
- Shift to non-synthetic clothing
Microplastics need to be stopped from leaching into the environment. If plastic is continuously used for the manufacturing of fabrics, the production processes must be improved so that less microfibers are released during washing.
It helps to wash synthetic clothes at lower temperatures, to use protective washing bags (Guppyfriend Washing Bag or Cora Ball) or to integrate dedicated filtering devices into the washing machine. France recently passed laws requiring microplastic filters in all new washing machines by 2025. The collected microparticles can be disposed of in the (residual) household waste for incineration. It is also helpful to let the laundry air-dry instead of tumble-dry, to reduce wear.
Wastewater treatment plants also need to be improved as they are the last opportunity where the small plastic particles can be filtered out of the water before they make their way into the environment.
An alternative approach and a permanent solution would be to switch to buying and wearing non-synthetic clothes, made from natural fibres that are preferably organically grown. They may be initially more expensive to buy but are longer-lasting and more sustainable. A broad variety of bio-based fabrics is available on the market and they can be divided into two broad categories. These are natural fibres made from natural raw materials on a plant or animal basis, which include textiles such as wool, silk, cotton, jute, coconut, flax, sisal, hemp, bamboo, kapok and ramie. The other category is semi-synthetic fibres made from natural raw materials with a naturally occurring long-chain polymer structure that are modified and partially degraded by chemical processes, such as rayon, viscose, modal, lyocell and cupro (natural clothing).