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Microplastics and microfibres

The environment is awash in plastic pollution. It’s an issue many of us are familiar with, one that’s exemplified by the Great Pacific garbage patch, a huge island of debris collected by ocean gyres, made up of fishing nets, discarded packaging, industrial plastics and consumer plastics of all types. Current research estimates the amount of plastic debris floating in the world’s oceans at more than five trillion pieces, weighing some 269 thousand tonnes (source).

Compounding the problem of visible plastic pollution is an aspect that’s less well understood and much more difficult to assess: microplastics. These tiny particles are found in ocean water as well as the Great Lakes and major rivers worldwide. Increasingly, microplastics are seen as a leading source of global marine pollution and they accumulate in the intestinal tracts of fish, bivalves and birds. Researchers are learning that microplastics may also travel by air, extending their reach beyond oceans (source).

Plastics persist. They remain in the environment for years, gradually breaking down into smaller and smaller particles. While these microplastics can be collected with great difficulty, it’s almost impossible to trace the source of each tiny fragment. Microbeads added to cosmetics have been identified as a contributor and including them in products sold in Canada is now banned.

How are microfibres connected to this issue?

Close-up of microfibres

You may not realize it, but small fibre fragments – less than 5mm long – shed from fabrics when you wear and wash your clothes. Microfibres that shed from synthetic fabrics are a type of microplastic, since polyester, nylon and other polymers are just different types of plastics. However, all fabrics, whether they’re made of synthetic polymers or natural fibres can be a source of microfibre pollution.

Natural fibres like cotton or wool are often treated with dyes and finishes. When microfibres from natural materials make it into the environment, the dyes and finishes can remain behind, even if the natural fibres break down (which they don’t always do quickly) (source).

While lint screens on dryers may capture some microfibres, home washing machines aren’t presently designed to filter microfibres from wastewater. Recent studies have shown that municipal wastewater facilities can be effective at capturing many of these fibres (97–99%), but that still leaves a large amount of fibres uncaptured. In Vancouver alone, Ocean Wise research estimates that 30 billion particles, which includes microfibres, are released to the ocean each year even after going through wastewater treatment (source).

What is MEC doing about microfibre pollution?

We recognize the threats to the environment posed by microplastics and microfibre pollution. We know that both synthetic and natural fabrics in clothes by MEC and other brands degrade over time and inevitably produce microfibres. We also know there still isn’t a clear path for the industry about the best way to solve the problem.

The opportunity now is to obtain real data about its exact sources, mechanisms and concentrations and to correlate those findings to what’s found in oceans. In particular, we need to understand source materials:

  • Do different types of fibres shed at different rates?
  • How does textile construction and the quality of textiles affect shedding?

Determining rates of fibre loss is key to understanding how fabrics may be re-engineered or screened to reduce microfibre pollution. Finding ways to design fabrics that shed less would reduce the amount of microfibres coming from home laundering and ending up in the ocean. It would also come with other practical benefits – if your clothes shed less, it means they should last longer.

Funding microfibre research

MEC has been involved in different ways to help address these questions. In 2017, drawing on the expertise and technical capacity of the Ocean Wise’s Plastics Lab, we were the first clothing business to help fund research into the apparel-linked microfibre pollution in aquatic environments. REI, Patagonia and Arc’teryx also signed on to this partnership.

Phase one of the study happened in 2017–18; it investigated microfibre shedding from doing household laundry, how wastewater treatment plants filter these out, and how microfibre particles weather in the environment. Ocean Wise publicly shared preliminary findings in February 2019. The data and insights from studies like these will help us make decisions around materials for future products, and better understand how microfibre pollution affects the environment.

Researcher holding a large sheet of textile samples near the ocean

MEC was the first retailer to commit to funding for phase two of Ocean Wise’s critical microplastics and microfibre research. In this second phase, the research focused on:

  • How microfibres flow from laundry at home to the ocean
  • How microfibres shed, and what that means about textile design and the way yarn is created
  • How to better identify microfibres in the ocean using spectral data collected by a type of forensic technology (Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometry)
  • How the size and chemistry of microfibres change in wastewater treatment plants

Working with the industry

We’re also collaborating with our peers in the industry to develop a quality assessment standard for rates of fibre loss in materials that can be used to inform textile selection and innovations. To build and share microfibre knowledge in the textile industry, MEC presented to leaders at Planet Textiles 2018 with Dr. Peter Ross from Ocean Wise.

What’s next?

Making technical garments, using them and disposing of them all have an impact on our environment. There’s no side-stepping this fact. And there are no short cuts for assessing and resolving these types of complex issues.

As a prominent researcher described it, “the societal benefits of textiles are without question” and with more than 5,000 types of commercial plastics in production, it’s nearly impossible to imagine living in a world without them. We’re not looking for a simple solution to a complex problem – our goal is to find the best balance between the different types of impact, from chemicals and water use to greenhouse gases. We believe a collaborative approach that brings together industry, scientific research, local governments and consumers is the best way to make lasting progress and to build comprehensive solutions.

Top photo: Mathew Watkins