Microplastics of Clothes, from Pisces to Humans

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What are microplastics?

Le microplastics they are small pieces of plastic invisible to the human eye without the aid of a microscope. In 2004, Professor Richard Thompson and his team from the University of Plymouth have presented the world with a true environmental nightmare called microplastic pollution, present in our seas, oceans, and on the coasts.

The biggest problem is that the microplastics they are consumed by fish and other marine life forms.

The alarm microplastics of clothes was launched in 2011 by the ecologist Mark Browne at the University College Dublin, who discovered that 85% of the fibers in the water were man-made materials, especially synthetic materials made from fabrics such as polyester and acrylic.

In his study, Mark Browne demonstrated how a single synthetic suit can release up to 1.900 microplastics when machine washed.

Thus microplastics enter the food chain of animals and consequently of us human beings who feed on them, with a clearly negative impact on the planet and human health.

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How are microplastics formed?

Le microplastics they are present in all synthetic clothing made with petroleum-derived materials. University of Plymouth researchers found that a 6kg washing machine load can release over 700.000 microplastics.

various plastic materials driftingMost of these micro-particles, due to their small size, are not captured by washing machine filters, nor by wastewater treatment plants, therefore, most of the microplastics of clothing end up in the seas and oceans.

Microplastics also derive from bad separate collection, since a part of large plastic waste, such as classic plastic bottles, ends up in the sea and begins to decompose, releasing small plastic particles into the water.

Certainly with an even more devastating impact on the marine world.

Plastic is a great plague for the planet earth and we should all learn to do without it, especially taking into account a key element: large companies seem to care less about the damage caused by this material, in the short or long term.

In addition to the problem of microplastics, fabrics without textile certifications they may contain heavy metals, formaldehyde, preservatives, triclosan, anti-bacterial and fungicides. So what does a microfiber released into the waters do? It acts like a taxy, delivering these toxic substances to our marine environments.

Microplastics, the silent killer (video)

Origin of microplastics

We talked about it right at the beginning of this article, Mark Browne is an ecologist with the School of Biology and Environmental Sciences at University College Dublin. Mark literally paved the way for research on microplasticswhen he found lowercase synthetic fibers on the shores of a beach.

His study conducted in 2011 revealed that 85% of the microfibers discovered were materials of human origin commonly used in clothing: mainly polyester, nylon and acrylic, the most used materials for our clothes.

After analyzing the waste water from household washing machines, he found that a single synthetic suit releases over 1.900 microplastics in a single wash, which mostly end up in the oceans.

microplastics washing machine

We have closets full of synthetic clothes and the water treatment plants have no filters for microplastics. So where do they go?

  • Microplastics in the sea
  • Microplastics in fish
  • Microplastics in food
  • Microplastics in drinking water
  • Microplastics in human feces

Then we have the classic "evil geniuses", those who use the microplastics in cosmetics and toothpastes. Drinking water polluted by microplastics is certainly the worst evil for us human beings, as the main source of the slow poisoning to which we have self-subjected for decades:

Analysis of microplastics in drinking water

Microplastics and washing machines

Let's ignore the fact that by using the washing machine too often we create a huge waste of water and energy. Italy, which has less than 1% of washing machines worldwide, releases about 120 kg of microplastics every week through home washes, to be clearer:

120kg of microplastics is equivalent to 15 plastic bags e 6 tons of microplastics a year equals 720 million plastic bags.

Secondo Textile World, the demand for polyester was 5,2 million tons in 1980, while in 2014 the demand reached 46,1 million tons and is increasing with each passing year.

Il Global Fashion Agenda and the 2017 report from the Boston Consulting Group Pulse of the fashion industry, even recommended that the textile sector increase the quantity of polyester by 92% by 2030 - reaching 76 million tons - as part of a "mix of sustainable materials", totally ignoring the problem ofmicroplastic pollution.

Microplastics of clothes

Even if not all the microplastics present in the water have made their way through our washing machines, most of them come from our homes, from our clothes.

Le microplastics of clothes they therefore contribute to increasing the responsibility of the textile industry towards global environmental pollution.

Many colored microplastics The research on the subject is very topical, and long-term solutions have not yet been worked out, but we can all take matters into our own hands with less frequent washing, buying less clothing, preferring natural fabrics certificates with low environmental impact.

Even if all the textile fibers they release microfibers during washing, the synthetic ones are called microplastics, while the others are mostly biodegradable microfibers.

Microplastics of synthetic fibers

Synthetic fibers are those created by man in the laboratory starting from materials of petroleum origin; unlike natural fibers which, as the name suggests, derive from natural resources.

Synthetic clothes are popular infashion industry, as they are widely available, resistant, easily moldable, light, but above all inexpensive. Let's just make a brief distinction between man-made and synthetic fibers, as it is important to understand the differences between fabrics:

  • Man-made (cellulosic) fibers include various forms of viscose or rayon. They usually derive from wood pulp, from vegetables, from cotton. They are also called "semi-synthetic fibers", as they are artificially created in the laboratory, but using a raw material of natural origin.
  • Synthetic fibers are instead made with petroleum, always created by man in the laboratory and sometimes called plastic fibers: polyester, nylon, acrylic, fleece, elastane, acetate, etc.

Both synthetic and man-made fibers are present in the depths of the sea, and it's really reassuring to know that the fish we often eat consume nylon and rayon, don't you think? At least they keep mercury company.

Groups of scientists have been working for years on plastics called BioPlastics, which are made with organic raw materials and therefore are biodegradable or at least compostable, and this could be one of the solutions to stem the problem microplastics.

Microfibers of artificial fibers vs microplastics

It should be emphasized that i artificial fabrics derived from cellulose like Bamboo, modal, lyocell, orange fiber, are commonly referred to as “sustainable” or “eco-friendly”, but could have similar impacts to synthetic fibers on the environment.

Like synthetic fibers, artificial ones also persist longer than natural ones (i.e. they biodegrade more slowly) and very often these too are loaded with chemicals that are released into the water every time we wash our clothes.

Those who follow our blog might think "but how?! do you sponsor these artificial fabrics as well as ecological and do they do the same damage as synthetic fibers? " we have no doubts about it: any fabric, however ecological, releases microfibres during washing, but “sustainability” is not as simple as it seems, there are many levels to analyze.

Scientific research on microfiber pollution (other than microplastics) has just begun, so the “real” environmental impact has yet to be tested and fully understood. Science is effective, but often slow in drawing conclusions, especially if there are no necessary funds, or if you have multinational companies pointing a "gun" at you.

Microfibers of natural fibers vs microplastics

Natural textile fibers such as wool, linen, hemp, jute, ramia, cashmere, silk, sisal, kenaf and cotton, all present in the marine environment, are not considered dangerous for the ecosystem, fish, and marine life in general, as these microfibers are easily biodegradable unlike microplastics.

So do natural fabrics have a positive impact on the planet? Absolutely not. Maybe they biodegrade more easily, but the fact remains that a non-certified natural fiber has a devastating environmental impact and is equally loaded with toxic substances that are released into the water.

Buying clothing made with natural fibers of biological origin, such as organic cotton e organic wool, is the best way to act in the fight againstmicroplastic pollution, but this is not always possible or even considered unrealistic.

We think of swimwear, gym clothing, technical clothing (mountaineering, etc.), all garments made with many varieties of synthetic fibers.

In these cases, where the only alternative is synthetic fabric, the advice we can give is to aim to buy the most ecological and ethical product on the market, and we usually talk about recycled synthetic fibers such as Econyl e Newlife, which at least can give us the guarantee of being free of dangerous chemicals.

Microplastics and microfibers found in Alpine lakes

At this point, a minimum of reflection and awareness become a must.

In the Upper Engadine (an area rich in forests and mountains: does Saint Moritz tell you something?), In the marvelous and luxuriant Switzerland, the analyzes of the waters of the lakes are leading to definitely worrying results.

The waters analyzed are in fact “rich” in particles of textile origin: textile fibers, also transported by the air, are negatively enriching these paradisiacal places.

Plastic is therefore also taking over the high mountains, and it is certainly a situation that must make us think very quickly.

The residues that remain in the filters used for the analyzes are: various textile fibers, polyethylene, PET and other plastics.

The analyzes are now continuing, precisely to try to understand to what extent, the Alpine lakes (which we all think almost impossible to pollute) are experiencing the drama of seas and oceans.

It is interesting to note how, even from analyzes carried out in the snowy areas (always in the Engadine), fragments of various plastics and textile fibers are being detected.

Pollution of Alpine lakes starts immediately from the surface water level.

Le microplasticsinvisible to the naked eye, they are now invading any natural environment: wherever man occupies the territory, the phase of contamination begins.

It is important to note that we are not simply talking about fibrous materials of synthetic origin but also about residues of cotton and wool (let's not forget, before commenting with the usual "but cotton and wool are natural", which is textile elements dyed with synthetic substances and, therefore, pollutants).

It is essential to intervene as soon as possible with more adequate domestic washing systems, more awareness on the part of all consumers and, alas, stricter laws (sustainability is also legislative).

How to reduce or eliminate the problem of microplastics in the home?

Since waste water treatment plants are not sufficient to hold back microplastics of clothes and stopping the world production of synthetic fibers is not plausible, what else can be done to minimize the risk of marine pollution by microplastics?

Washing bags are a good solution: these bags should also be used for all fabrics, not just synthetic ones: according to some studies they are able to reduce 85% of the microplastics in the water when used.

A laundry bag lasts 6-10 times longer than a normal fabric, and if nylon lasts 100 years, monofilament should last at least 600 years. They are technical bags designed to filter microfibres and microplastics without dispersing them in water.

In response to this environmental problem the German company named guppyfriend developed a laundry bag stating that it can catch 99% of microfibers, and you can buy this bag on the page Facebook by Guppyfriend.

In addition to washing bags, after a successful Kickstarter campaign, the laundry ball (or washingball) Cora ball went into production and is now available for purchase.

Laundry bags and balls are obviously short-term solutions, but what is the best long-term solution?

The consequences of microplastics on the planet and human health are still to be defined, we only know that eating plastic is not good, but we await further scientific studies on the subject.

We advise all our readers to live sustainably and with a clear conscience, applying small tricks in our home life:

  1. Avoid purchasing synthetic fiber clothing to minimize the amount of microplastics that enter the sea through our washing machines.
  2. Prefer the purchase of organic clothing in natural fibers.
  3. Make sure you put synthetic clothing like leggings, bikinis and bras in filter bags, or put Wash Balls in the washing machine to catch the microplastics.
  4. Likewise, if you own artificial fabrics such as bamboo, modal, lyocell, etc., you should apply the same solutions until the publication of a conclusive scientific research.
  5. Try to minimize washing synthetic clothing and use a gentler cycle. Always keep in mind that more than 700 thousand microfibers can be released with a 6kg washing machine.
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