Importance of biodegradation
Hear why it’s important for synthetic microfibers to biodegrade from Madeleine MacGillivray, CiCLO® technology Communication Specialist at Intrinsic Advanced Materials and Climate Advocate/Science Communicator.
Synthetic microfibers are short fibers that have shed or broken from things like clothing, rugs, upholstery, and many other fabrics and products made with plastic-based materials like polyester and nylon.
Microfibers have been found to be the dominant form of secondary microplastics pollution in soil and most aquatic environments1 and are detected everywhere — in the air, rainwater, soil, freshwater, seawater, landfills, wastewater treatment plants and even in the guts of marine life, wildlife and humans.
Synthetic microfibers are small and therefore lack feasible cleanup options. Once they end up as pollutants in the environment, they persist in nature because, like most plastics, they do not naturally biodegrade (unless they contain CiCLO® technology).
As concentrations in the environment grow, so does the likelihood of ingestion by aquatic or terrestrial wildlife. Definitive risks posed by microfiber pollution to soil biodiversity, food safety, and human health are still unknown, but scientists and policymakers agree that a proactive precautionary approach to reduce microplastics pollution is required.
Many sources of shedding
Microfibers are shed from clothing and textiles during manufacture, use and customary care. It is estimated that for every 500 shirts made, the equivalent of one is lost as microfibers during the manufacturing process1.
Carpets, upholstery, clothing and other home goods shed from friction during use and vacuuming. Laundering also causes textiles to shed. One study calculates that 5.6 million tons of synthetic microfibers have been emitted globally from apparel washing between 1950 and 20162.
Some microfibers are so small that they are unable to be filtered through municipal wastewater treatment plants and flow to the oceans, depending on filtration capabilities at each plant. However, some studies show that up to 65-99% of microfibers that are shed during wash may be captured in the wastewater sludge3. Yet, these captured microfibers are re-introduced into the environment through the use of sludge biosolids used as soil amendments and fertilizer.
The ocean is downhill from everywhere.
Annual estimates of plastic microfiber pollution entering the oceans is equivalent in weight to more than 50 billion plastic bottles.4
Beyond the bounds of marine environments
Microfibers have been found to be the dominant form of microplastics in soils.5 North American soil may receive up to 300,000 metric tons of microplastics annually through biosolid applications alone.
- Source: Nature.org
- Source: Gavigan et al., 2020
- Source: Bren Microplastics
- Source: Ellen MacArthur report
- Source: Materevolve + NOAA California Microfiber Update: Textile Perspective
Become a part of the solution
CiCLO® fibers are one way to reduce the impacts of plastic pollution caused by textiles, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this environmental threat. It will take collective action from all stakeholders – manufacturers and brands, consumers and policymakers – to mitigate the microplastics crisis.
For brands and textile producers
Shedding rates can be decreased by up to 80-90% when textile design and manufacturing considers these techniques:
- Increasing fiber strength, such as by lowering temperatures during melt spinning
- Using continuous fibers instead of staple fibers
- Choosing yarn dyeing over garment dyeing
- Increasing fabric resistance to shedding and pill formation by using finishing treatments made with safe chemistries
- Avoiding yarns and fabrics that have a high shedding-rate
- Conducting industrial pre-washing of garments and collecting the released fibers
(which includes all of us)
Here are best practices you can use to help reduce fiber shedding:
- Wash textiles less often
- Use washing machines at full load and using fabric softeners and liquid detergent
- Wash laundry with cold water for a shorter period of time
- If possible, use a front-loading washer
- Install an external microfiber filter on your washing machine and/or use a microfiber catching laundry ball or bag and dispose of the captured microfibers in the trash
- Invest in products made to last – say no to “Fast Fashion”