By Anne-Charlotte Hanning from RISE
Microplastics have been a big environmental issue the latest years where one can read numerous articles on how polluted the environment is – and especially the oceans. Microplastics in the outlet wastewater from washing clothes is one of many sources (plastic debris, tyres, lost fishing nets, antifouling, artificial turfs etc). Many initiatives and research projects have investigated “from where, how much and when” we now can begin to draw some conclusions and also discard some of the myths regarding “microplastics” and textiles. These particles are very small, often referred to particles from 1 nm up to 5 mm, the majority not being visible by the naked eye. The dominating synthetic fibre fragments, i.e. “microplastics”, that originates from textiles are polyester and polyamide (nylon). Also note that textiles made of natural fibres also shed fibre fragments. There are studies finding more natural fibres fragments than fragments from synthetic origin in the ocean – which means that the natural fibres do not degrade as fast as previously thought. This indicates that all textiles, natural as well as synthetic, release potentially problematic fibre fragments.
Myth #1: Microplastics are only shedded when we wash our clothes.
Textiles shed during manufacturing as well as when we wear our clothes and we wash them. An example from a recent study at RISE showed that in this case approximately 96 % of the shedding occurred during manufacturing and finishing processes compared to the shedding from the ready-made fabric.
|100% recycled polyester||Average value of microplastics release [%]||Average value of microplastics release [mg/kg]|
|Circular knitted grey fabric||
|After dyeing and cutting||
|After brushing the pile||
|Last finishing stage||
|Washed and finished fabric||
Table 1. Shows the microplastics release after different steps in the production for one fabric made of 100% recycled polyester
Myth #2: Virgin fabric is better than recycled fabric
This is not automatically true. One example of this is a test conducted at RISE comparing virgin and recycled textile labels made of 100% polyester. In this case the weight loss was higher from the virgin material compared to the recycled.
The graph on the left depicts sample weight loss. The virgin material showed more weight loss than the recycled material, both from the rinse and the mainwash. Triplet samples were weighed and the average was calculated.
Myth #3: Fleece is worse than weaves
This is not automatically true. For example, RISE compared four different fleeces and one knitwear to five weaves. The results in the figure on the left show quite the opposite in this case, the range of shedding from the weaves is worse than from the fleeces.
The graph on the left compares range of shed particles. The X-axis shows the range of number of particles/ “microplastics”.
Studies from the German research project ”TextileMission” show similar results when comparing fleece fabrics with different weaves.
There is no standardized method to assess shedding from textiles yet, therefore it is very difficult to compare the results from different studies. However, the initiative called “CIA-Cross Industry Agreement” with representatives from Europe (including RISE), Asia and America; have worked together for 2 years to develop a harmonized method which was submitted to the European Standardisation Organisation (CEN) in 2020. Hopefully, this standard will be published in late 2021. CIA has also published a brochure with information about unintentionally released “microplastics” from textiles, see link below.
The issue with textiles shedding small particles and fibres is complicated. There are many parameters that have an impact. From construction of the yarn and fabric to the different manufacturing and finishing processes, consumers using the clothes and finally the washing process. At present, the best way for a consumer to mitigate the shedding without installing an extra filter device is to wash with full load in the washing machine and subsequent tumble drying. Using washing bags (where one puts the textiles in a bag with a small mesh size to retain the microplastics inside the bag) also helps preventing the microplastics reaching the environment to a certain extent – as long as the collected ”microplastics” is thrown into the bin and not rinsed in the sink.
In the HEREWEAR project we have the opportunity to follow the fabric from cradle to grave and take measures along the whole chain to mitigate the shedding. Our goal is to reduce the shedding of at least 75%.
Learn more here: