An Obvious Environmental Problem from an Unobvious Source
It is easy to react to the obvious: if you found the sea filled with plastic debris, you would not choose to swim in it; and if your bottle of water had floating solids in it, you would not drink from it. It is not so easy when you can’t see the problem but that does not mean it is not a serious threat to us and the environment.
The contamination of our natural water supplies with plastic is something everyone is used to hearing about in the media. It is not uncommon to read stories about attempts to remove a floating island of plastic debris in the Pacific, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or stories of wildlife being adversely affected by plastic debris.
The latest stories are different, however, because they involve contamination of the sea by small, practically invisible plastic particulates, known as microfibers. Recent stories relating to microfibers include:
- Nature magazine – microfibers found near the polar region in an area which is nearly free of human habitant. The microfibers have been carried by the ocean currents, leading to the suggestion that all oceans are now contaminated
- The Guardian – microfibers found in drinking water in many US cities. This suggests microfibers have already ‘infiltrated’ our daily lives and makes it clear water treatment facilities are failing to remove microfibers from drinking water
- The Guardian – microfibers are found in bottled drinking water, suggesting that even bottled water is no longer safe from microfiber contamination
The ubiquity of microfibers raises two important questions: what are microfibers and what threat do they pose to us?
What are microfibers?
Microfiber are plastic particulates that are typically fractions of a millimeter in diameter and are less than 5 mm long.1 Textiles are the suspected source of most microfibers, particularly garments and household textiles that require regular laundering. It is suggested that microfibers enter our waterways when the textile is washed, as both home laundering machines and municipal wastewater treatment systems are unable to filter out these small particulates. Another source of microfiber pollution is personal care products that have microbeads added to them, for example facial scrubs.1
Domestic garment washing is one of the primary sources of microfibers. The agitation of garments inside the washing machines is necessary for the cleaning action of the detergent, but it also damages the fabric’s surface. Fleece products, which are mostly made from synthetic fibers such as polyester and which have fabric surfaces that are mechanically damaged to create the raised surface required for hand-feel and thermal resistance properties, are particularly prone to fiber shredding in the wash. In general, fleece fabrics shred significantly more microfibers during a standard domestic wash than a plain fabric.
What threat do they pose to us?
A particular concern relating to microfibers is their ability to absorb harmful chemical substances, such as phthalates (commonly found as a plasticizer but restricted in both US and European Union (EU) markets in finished garment products) and lead.2 These chemicals are known to affect our endocrine systems and are suspected carcinogens.
Research has shown that microfibers can be found in the digestive tracts of many small aquatic organisms. Any harmful chemicals absorbed by the microfibers will then become concentrated as they move up the food chain, making them harmful to us when they end up in our daily diet.
What can be done?
Several organizations and authorities are now trying to address the problem of microfibers, including the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), European Cross Industry Agreement Group (CIA), the US Government and the EU. OIA has listed microfibers as one of their seven priority issues under their sustainability work group3, while the CIA has already held their first technical meeting addressing the issue.4 In the US, California is proposing a state law to emphasis the fiber shredding properties of polyester made garments and fabrics.5 Finally, the European Commission has asked the European Chemicals Agency to prepare proposals for possible restrictions concerning microplastic particles on consumer products.6
At the same time, the US has also passed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, a Federal law banning rinse-off cosmetic products that contain intentionally added plastic microbeads. This law came into effect in January 2018.7
On a personal level, some research has shown clothes should be laundered in specially made washing bags that trap the microfibers. The problem is then how to dispose of the caught microfibers!
To date, there is no official testing method to evaluate the fiber shredding properties of a garment/fabric and no standard benchmark to evaluate whether a fabric is good or bad in terms of its fiber shredding properties. We have developed an in-house method for microfiber testing,8 and we are collaborating with standards organizations to draft a new test method.
While this plastic pollution might not be as ‘obvious’ as the floating garbage patch, it has the potential to be far more dangerous. It is in everyone’s interest to address the issue of microfibers as quickly as possible to protect ourselves and safeguard our environment for future generations.
To learn more about our textile testing services, contact:
Senior Technical Services Executive, Softlines
SGS Hong Kong Limited
Sources1 Outdoor Industry Association Priority Issues Brief: Microfibers
2 Microfiber Release From Clothes After Washing: Hard Facts, Figures and Promising Solutions
3 Sustainable Business
4 Cross Industry Agreement for the Prevention of Microplastic Release into the Aquatic Environment During the Washing of Synthetic Textiles
5 California Legislature – 2017-2018 Regular Session
6 ECHA to Consider Restrictions on the Use of Oxo-plastics and Microplastics
7 H.R.1321 - Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015
8 Safeguard: Microfiber Pollution Caused by Domestic Laundering of Synthetic Garments