Close up of microfibres

Could wearing clothes release more microfibres than washing?

New research shows that wearing clothes can release even greater quantities of microfibres into the environment than washing them.

Scientists from the Institute for Polymers, Composites and Biomaterials of the National Research Council of Italy (IPCB-CNR) and the University of Plymouth compared the fibres released when four different items of polyester clothing were worn and washed.

The research, which was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, showed that up to 4,000 fibres per gramme of fabric could be released during a 40-degree wash, while up to 400 fibres per gramme could be shed by clothing during just 20 minutes of normal activity.

The polyester/cotton mix garment showed the greatest release during both washing and wearing, with woven polyester releasing the least quantity of microfibres.

Scaled up, this means that one person alone could release up to 300m polyester microfibres per year by washing their clothes, and more than 900m into the atmosphere by simply wearing them.

Dr Francesca De Falco, research fellow at IPCB-CNR and lead author on the 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 compact structure like woven, with yarns highly twisted and composed of continuous filaments, can release less microfibres to both air and water.”

The researchers claim that previous evaluations of microplastic pollution have underestimated the impact of synthetic textiles, as they have not taken into account the quantities that are released directly into the air.

Senior author on the study, Professor Richard Thompson, Head of the University of Plymouth’s International Marine Litter Research Unit, gave evidence to both a UK government inquiry into the sustainability of the fashion industry and the recent OECD Forum on Due Diligence in the Garment and Footwear Sector.

He said: “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.”

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