As much as 35 per cent of microplastics in the marine environment are fibres from synthetic clothing, an amount that continues to increase. But by contrast, natural fibres such as wool readily biodegrade, offering a less impactful solution.
Against the deep blue of the north Pacific Ocean, somewhere off the coast of California, a 700,000sq kilometre gyre of marine debris particles sits ominously. Accumulated over the course of decades by the natural currents, the Great Pacific garbage patch, as the mass of plastic is described, poses a significant threat to the prosperity of marine life, including the flocks of seabirds that travel through the area, as they ingest hundreds of pieces of plastic, the result of photo-degradation caused by the fibre’s inability to biodegrade like organic debris, and subsequently splits into smaller and smaller particles, right through to the molecular level, where they enter the food chain.
Microplastic particles, including microfibres from synthetic clothing and textiles, are now ubiquitous in aquatic and land-based ecosystems across the world. In fact, it is estimated that 0.6-1.7 million tons of microfibres are released into the ocean every year, with new research by the University of Manchester, recently published in Nature Geoscience, finding the number of microplastic pieces in the world’s waterways is vastly greater than originally thought. Without active intervention, the abundance of these <5mm in diameter particles is set to increase as consumption of plastics and man-made fibres in clothing expands to meet demand from a rising world population and increasing regional incomes.
“An effective strategy for consumers to reduce their contribution to microfibre pollution would be to choose garments made from natural fibres.”
Microfibres can enter the environment through sources such as fibres shed from synthetic apparel during use and washing, or through other secondary sources, predominantly degradation and fragmentation of larger pieces of synthetic textile waste. While the full extent of the negative impacts of microplastic pollution on aquatic habitats and organisms is yet to be fully understood, the current research suggests physical, chemical and biological impacts are felt throughout the food chain including leaching of toxic chemicals and eventual starvation of host organisms.
Furthermore, fibre-shaped microplastics appear to be of greater environmental consequence than more regular shaped particles due to a tendency for entanglement in the digestive tract that can lead to blockages and a higher chance of compromised growth, reproduction or even starvation. Chemical impacts may also be enhanced since the larger surface area of fibres potentially allows greater sorption of harmful compounds and a higher retention in the gut allows more time for leakage of plastic additives. The full extent of the impact on human health is yet to be known, yet it is largely acknowledged that microplastics may enter the human body through the food chain and drinking water.
“Wool readily biodegrades and consequently doesn’t amass in the environment.”
A new review into microplastic pollution from textiles recommends an increased use of natural non-synthetic materials, such as wool, in global textile markets, because wool biodegrades in marine as well as land environments and therefore does not cause microplastic pollution. The review, published in February by Consumption Research Norway (SIFO), was conducted by Adjunct Associate Professor Beverley Henry of the Queensland University of Technology and researchers from SIFO, with support from Australian Wool Innovation (AWI, the owner of The Woolmark Company) and the Cotton Research and Development Corporation.
“An effective strategy for consumers to reduce their contribution to microfibre pollution would be to choose garments made from natural fibres which are biodegradable and do not contribute to the build-up of microplastics in the environment,” Dr Henry said of the review. “The positive attributes of wool in terms of durability, recyclability and low impact care (less frequent washing, at lower temperatures with less detergent/conditioner) are consistent with strategies to minimise shedding of microfibres to the environment.”
“The positive attributes of wool in terms of durability, recyclability and low impact care are consistent with strategies to minimise shedding of microfibres to the environment.”
The review is a part of a larger work by AWI towards better accounting for the use phase in Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of apparel, as there have been no LCA studies that have yet attempted to include impacts of microplastic pollution. Angus Ireland, AWI's Program Manager for Fibre Advocacy and Eco Credentials, says the review helps demonstrate the eco-credentials of natural fibres in a world where there is increasing concern about the effect on the environment of synthetic textiles. “Wool readily biodegrades and consequently doesn’t amass in the environment. This important difference between natural and synthetic fibres needs to be accounted for in Life Cycle Assessment for the LCA to be credible and scientifically defensible."
The man-made trash vortex is an imposing presence, one documented in the Craig Leeson-directed documentary Plastic Oceans in which teams of scientists and marine biologists explore the dire effects of the toxic pollutant and point to its long-term ramifications not only on the natural environment but human life, too. With no singular solution to the growing issue, and without significant government support – such as the banning of single-use plastic bags, a law that has been implemented in certain countries and states around the world, such as California, which has seen a reduction of 13 billion plastic bags per year – responsibility has fallen to the private sector and individual citizens to remedy our oceans. Through a responsible choice of what we wear, we can ultimately contribute to the long-term health of the planet.