Wearing clothes can release even greater quantities of microfibres to the environment than washing them, new research shows.
Scientists from the Institute for Polymers, Composites and Biomaterials of the National Research Council of Italy (IPCB-CNR) and the University of Plymouth compared how many fibres were being released from four different items of polyester clothing when they were being worn and being washed.
The results of the study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology showed that up to 4,000 fibres per gram of fabric could be released during a conventional wash, while up to 400 fibres per gram of fabric could be shed by items of clothing during just 20 minutes of normal activity.
The results indicate that over a year, one person could release almost 300 million polyester microfibres to the environment by washing their clothes, and more than 900 million to the air by simply wearing them.
The study also suggests that there were significant differences depending on how the garments were made. The researchers concluded that clothing design and manufacturer have a major role to play in preventing microfibres from being emitted to the environment.
The research which was carried out by the scientists at the National Research Council of Italy and the University of Plymouth builds on their previous studies which showed substantial quantities of fibres being released during the laundry process.
Dr Francesca De Falco, Research Fellow at IPCB-CNR and lead author on the current research, said: “Recently, more evidence has been accumulating on the presence of synthetic microfibres not only in aquatic environments but also in atmospheric ones. That is why we decided to design this set of experiments to study microfibre release by garments to both media.”
“This is a type of pollution that should be mainly fought at its source, the fabric itself, but we investigated the influence of different textile parameters on the release. Results have shown that textiles with a very compact structure like woven, with yarns highly twisted and composed of continuous filaments, can release fewer microfibres to both air and water.”
The four different garments which were compared showed that between 700 and 4,000 fibres per gram of fabric could be released from them during a single 40°C wash.
For the purpose of the study, the researchers created a dedicated clean lab which was used by multiple volunteers wearing each of the four garments separately. They then performed a sequence of movements simulating a mix of everyday activities. The polyester/cotton garment showed the greatest release during both washing and wearing, with the woven polyester one releasing the least quantity of microfibres.
However, based on the overall results, the researchers say previous estimations of microplastic pollution have underestimated the importance of synthetic textiles since they did not take into account the quantities released directly into the air.
Professor Richard Thompson OBE, Head of the University of Plymouth’s International Marine Litter Research Unit, senior author on the study, gave evidence to both the UK Government’s Sustainability of the Fashion Industry inquiry and the recent OECD Forum on due diligence in the garment and footwear sector.
He added: “The key story here is that the emission of fibres while wearing clothes is likely of a similar order of magnitude as that from washing them. That constitutes a substantial and previously unquantified direct release to the environment. The results also show textile design can strongly influence both release to the air and release due to laundering; that is a crucial message highlighting the importance of sustainable design for the fashion industry. Indeed many of the current issues associated with the environmental impacts of plastic items stem from a lack of holistic thinking at the design stage.”