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Microfiber and Polyester Fabrics: The Rise in Microfiber Pollution

cotton fabric in a quilt

blog post by Elena

by Elena Tran

Invisible plastic bunnies in my home

Saturday house cleaning is an ordinary chore, something I do without thinking. Rumba picks up the dirt from the floor, and I do it everywhere else. But in the middle of the pandemic, my head is inquisitive. Why do I have so much fluff on the floors and on my furniture? What is this stuff that keeps coming back every week with menacing persistence? Blaming it on dandruff is silly. I would have to lose the skin all over my body to produce that much dust. I have no pets and I have the air purifier with special filters that cost me a fortune.

What is this dust? In addition to my own cells, there is a huge amount of tiny microfibers constantly shedding from my bedding, the table cloth and kitchen towels, my chairs and the curtains and, of course, from the clothes I wear. In short, those dust bunnies are not going away any time soon and I’d better give them cute names to reconcile myself with their annoying presence.

Microfiber shedding in fabrics

Let me put on my scientist hat for a moment and explain what microfiber is. I am not talking about the cloth that we use to wipe the glasses although it’s made from the same stuff. Microfibers are microscopic plastic fibers. They are shedding from both synthetic and natural textiles (Le), particularly from those fabrics that are short in length, or loosely spun or woven.

The largest amount of microfibers is released from polyester fabrics so it makes sense to explain what these materials are made from. They are basically complex synthetic polymers (large chains of repeating molecules) that are chemically treated to make them into fibers. They start as plastic pellets or chips that are derived from petroleum oil and they are then combined with other chemicals, heated, melted and made into yarns. (Clive Hallett). Sometimes polyester fibers are combined with other natural fibers to make polyester blends.

Microfiber and the environment

image by Tatiana Zanon on Splash

Image by Tatiana Zanon on Unsplash

Most microfiber shedding occurs during laundering. These plastic particles are so small that they cannot be easily removed and they flow straight into the rivers, lakes and oceans. To put this into perspective, since the microfibers originated from synthetic fabrics are not biodegradable, they are directly contributing to plastic pollution, just like plastic water bottles. One research in 2016 claimed that “the annual microfiber release from textiles (apparel) into the marine environment was 0.19 million tons annually.” (Leonas) In addition, the environmental scientists estimate that “20% to 35% of all primary source microplastics in the marine environment are fibers from use of synthetic clothing”. (Kirsi Laitala) That takes my breath away.

image by Hiroko Yoshii

Image by Hiroko Yoshii on Unsplash

Since laundering is the greatest culprit of microfibers being released from the fabrics, I will focus on that. We are familiar with lint filter bags in our dryers and they are extremely helpful in catching the longer microfibers (greater than 1 millimeters). However, they are helpless when it comes to the shorter ones that are polluting our lakes as we speak. Wastewater treatment plants cannot remove these particles either. The greatest amount of microfibers comes from synthetic fabrics (acrylic, nylon, polyester, rubber) and the amount increases as washing temperature increases and even the detergent selection play a vital part. (LibiaoYang)

Why microfibers are a cause for concern

image by Nick Fewings

Image by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Considering that synthetic fabrics are produced in such large numbers (70% of global fiber production (Kirsi Laitala), the consequences of our choices are alarming. Here are some more hard facts for you. Three Belgian studies already found microplastics in mussels and oysters. There is also increasing evidence of plastic debris in fish, honey and even salt. (https://www.plasticsoupfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Position-Paper.Microfiber-release-from-clothes-after-washing.PSF_.pdf)
Is the fashion industry putting wool over our eyes by staying silent about this very serious danger to the environment and our health? Since we often decide with our wallets, are we need to make a few changes to change what’s happening.

This is what we all can do right now to slow down the increase of plastic pollution

  • Buy only natural fabrics, like linen, silk, and occasional cotton. Why occasional? Because cotton is increasingly earning a reputation as a “dirty crop”. “Cotton cultivation globally consumes about 16.5% of all pesticides while it is grown on only 2.4% of the world’s arable land”. (Kirsi Laitala). It also requires lots of water and energy to grow and process. Do your own research and make educated choices when you shop for fabrics. Ask for natural fabrics and the shops will stock them to meet the demand.
  • Since laundry is the prime culprit, we need to change our behavior. Less microfiber is released when you wash your clothes gently by hand or in a washing mashing on quick cycle and in cold water. As the temperature increases, so is the amount of the dangerous plastic micro particles. There are a couple of companies that make special microfiber catching laundry bags and laundry balls. The Guppyfriend and Cora balls are the examples. I am not convinced with this strategy, however. Once you trap the microfibers, the next step is to throw them in the garbage, which doesn’t solve the problem. It’s just putting lipstick on a pig.
image by Hayley Clues

  • Mend old clothes and upcycle as much as you can. Circular fashion is a new buzz word today. It means using renewable materials and making new clothes out of something old.
  • Sew your own clothes to increase their value in your mind. As you make a considerable time investment in making beautiful clothes that fit you perfectly, you will tend to hang on to your clothes longer and lessen the burden on landfills.
image by Kris Atomic

Image by Kris Atomic on Unsplash

 

Bibliography

Clive Hallett, Amanda Johnston. Fabric for fashion: The complete guide. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2014.

https://www.plasticsoupfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Position-Paper.Microfiber-release-from-clothes-after-washing.PSF_.pdf. May 2017.

Kirsi Laitala, Ingun Grimstad Klepp and Beverley Henry. "Does use matter? Comparison of environmental impacts of clothing based on fiber type." Sustainability (2018). <https://doi.org/10.3390/su10072524>.

Le, Kilara. "Microfiber Shedding: Hidden Environmental Impact." AATCC Review 17 (2017): 30-37. <https://doi.org/10.14504/ar.17.5.1>.

Leonas, Karen K. "Textile and Apparel Industry Addresses Emerging Issue of Microfiber Pollution." (n.d.). <https://ojs.cnr.ncsu.edu/index.php/JTATM/article/view/14851>.

LibiaoYang, FeiQiao,KunLei,HuiqinLi,YuKang,SongCui,LihuiAn. "Microfiber release from different fabrics during washing." Environmental Pollution 249 (2019): 136-143. <https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0269749118346104>.






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