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What are microfibres & why are they bad for the environment?

Polly Polly 13 May 2022 What are microfibres & why are they bad for the environment?

It's a safe bet to say that you've already heard about our planet drowning in plastic – and that we should be waving goodbye to single-use plastic products. It's relatively simple to drink from reusable water bottles or bring your own tote bag to the supermarket. But is there anything we can do about microplastic pollution?

Microfibres, the tiny tiny particles released from synthetic fabrics, might have already caught your attention. When we wash our clothes, microfibres are released into our water systems, oceans and even the air.1

But are microfibres actually that bad for the environment? Can microfibres be harmful to our health? Should we only buy clothes from natural fabrics to stop microfibre pollution? And can anyone explain it in plain and simple English, please?!

We hear you. That is why in this article, we will provide easily digestible answers to complex questions about microfibres. Read on, absorb all you can and discover whether it is possible – and if so, how – to filter out microfibres from the planet and our lives.
 

In this article:

So, what are microfibres?

Microfibres are tiny and fine particles of synthetic fabrics that get released into the environment when we wash our clothes in the washing machine.2 How tiny, you ask?

Microfibres are less than 5 millimetres in length, with diameters measured in micrometres (1/1000 of a millimetre).3 So, basically so tiny that they are invisible to the naked eye. If you want to have a better idea, imagine a particle that is 100 times finer than a human hair.4

What is the difference between microplastics and microfibres?

Microfibres are a subcategory of microplastics. They are known as primary microplastics – those that are directly released into the environment as opposed to secondary microplastics that mostly originate from the degradation of larger plastic.5

As we all know, plastic doesn't naturally biodegrade, instead, it breaks down into microplastics, small particles that are less than 5 millimetres in diameter.6 You've probably heard of 'microplastics' in cosmetics, also known as microbeads. In this blog, we will explore another subcategory of microplastics: microfibres.

What is the difference between microfibre fabric and microfibres?

The term microfibre can refer to two different things: microfibre fabric that is great at absorbing liquid, cleaning dirty sports or removing makeup and microfibres – the pollutants.2

Microfibre fabric, also called microsuede, consists of super tiny fibres. Actually, about 31 000 fibres are needed for one square centimetre of fabric. Meanwhile, microfibres (the pollutants) are types of microplastics that come off of our synthetic clothing and eventually, reach our rivers and oceans.

These tiny microfibres might be causing a huge problem

Actually, microfibres are problematic because of their small size.

Our washing machines, unfortunately, have no filters capable of catching these tiny particles.3 Microfibres also pass through the sewage treatment plants because often, they don't have fine enough filters to catch microfibres either.

Treated wastewater is usually dumped in our rivers and oceans – and so are those microfibres in it. What amount are we talking about?

Estimates vary. But it is possible that washing one load of laundry could be responsible for hundreds, thousands and even millions of microplastics being released into the wastewater system.1,3 That's not really specific, is it?

The problem with pinpointing the exact number of released microfibres is the sheer number of factors that contribute to their release.3 For instance, one study reported about 1.900 released microfibres from washing one synthetic piece of clothing. Another paper found that washing one fleece jacket made out of polyester could release one million microfibres.

The estimation is that a population of 100.000 people could be producing approximately 1,02 kilograms of microfibres every day. This means that, for instance, about 91,5 kilograms of microfibres are produced a day – in London alone. And that translates to more than 33.300 kilograms a year. Of microfibres!

We really don't enjoy being the bearers of bad news, but it gets worse. Microfibres are released into the air when we just wear our synthetic clothing.1 And it seems that the number of microfibres released by wearing or washing synthetic clothes is almost the same.

How bad are microfibres for the environment?

It's difficult to know the extent to which microfibres contribute to transforming our ocean into one (micro)plastic soup. They are tiny and they end up deep in the ocean or even on the ocean floor. So it's quite hard to exactly count them, to say the least.

But we do know that the (horror) story known as 'ocean plastic pollution' has changed its protagonist. And microplastics now play an important role in it too. When we look at the number of pieces of plastics in the ocean, most of it is not in the form of whole products but broken-down plastic shreds.3

Visible pieces of plastic (such as bottles or straws) represent only about 6% of the total mass of plastic in our oceans.7 Whereas microplastics from our household and industrial products could be responsible for about 15% to 31% of ocean plastic pollution.

And it is estimated that 35% of this microplastic pollution comes from washing our synthetic clothing.8,3,9 Some estimates might be lower, of course. But even those mention about 20% – and that translates to 190 million kilograms of microfibres released from our clothing and entering our waters in one year.7

One might be thinking along the lines that we shouldn't worry too much about microfibres because these broken-down plastic shreds are too tiny to matter. But by not addressing the problem and adding more microfibres to our waters, we're asking for big trouble.

Because once microfibres are in the oceans, there is no effective method for removing them.3 And we all know that plastic is like that memory of a horrible haircut we once got – we just can't get rid of it. It simply stays with us for many many years to come.

How do microfibres affect marine life?

Well, microplastics can be toxic to marine life on their own.3 However, they also have the properties of a sponge – attracting carcinogenic organic pollutants (PoPs) and absorbing other toxins from detergents and fire retardants found in wastewater.1

That's unfortunately not the whole story: while a whole plastic water bottle won't be probably digested by marine wildlife, the same cannot be said about microfibres.

It was found that about 73% of fish in mid-ocean depths in the Northwest Atlantic had microplastics in their stomachs.3 The animals in the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean, are also exposed to microfibres.

Consuming microfibres can cause gut blockage, physical injury, changes in feeding behaviour and oxygen levels in body cells as well as reduced energy levels in marine wildlife.10 All of this has an influence on their growth and reproduction.

And as we live in a world where humans are consuming animals, microfibres reach human's stomachs too.

In fact, it was found that ¼ of the sea life that humans consume contains microplastics.1 Microfibres were found in plankton, chicken, sea salt, beer, honey, tap and bottled water.5,7 So, no matter what (or who) you eat, you are probably also consuming microfibres. But what are the consequences of this?

How dangerous are microfibres for our health?

The answer to this question might be very unsatisfying: we simply don't know (yet). What we do know is that particle pollution such as fine dust or asbestos is linked to lung tissue damage, higher cancer risks, asthma attacks and other health problems.11 If the inhalation of microplastics is high enough, it could cause similar health issues.

The amount of plastic we are breathing in and consuming is estimated to be equal to one credit card per week.12 However, the bigger problem lies in the fact that we are clueless about whether the plastic particles stay in our bodies and release further toxins.

Still, (the limited) scientific evidence suggests that our current exposure to microfibres from synthetic clothing is probably not going to cause serious toxicity.7 Unfortunately, there's another but coming.

The impact of long-term consumption and inhalation of microfibres is unknown. And as we all realize, a lack of scientific evidence doesn't prove a lack of harm to human health.13,14

Microplastics from clothing: What fabrics release microfibres?

Synthetic microfibres are released from textiles that are made with synthetic fibres. Those fibres that are petroleum-derived – think of polyester, nylon or acrylic. And as these synthetic fibres are dominating global production, they also dominate the microfibre issue.

Despite the fact that the microfibre problem usually revolves around synthetic microfibres (aka plastic microfibres), which are also the central topic of this article, there is more to it. The truth is, all fabrics and fibres shed – not only synthetic petroleum-derived fibres.

This means that also synthetic plant-based fibres (such as rayon and lyocell as well as natural fibres like cotton) shed and release microfibres.15,16

Synthetic plant-based fibres are quite a unique category – many studies do not distinguish between synthetic plant- or petroleum-based fibres.17 But a few do. And rayon (viscose) and lyocell fibres were found in the stomachs of sea life too.

Under the category of natural fibres, we recognize plant-based fibres like cotton and animal-based 'fibres' like wool). The difference is – natural fibres biodegrade while synthetic ones don't.

But whether a material biodegrades or not depends on very specific environmental conditions. These conditions might not be met in all scenarios, for instance, deep in the oceans, where microfibres usually end up. Also, natural fibres' biodegradability can be negatively affected due to dyeing and other processes done to a fabric.18

One (small) study did find that natural fibres account for more than 35% of microscopic litter in the digestive tracts of birds. Yet, they appear to be digestible (as opposed to synthetic microfibres).

But what (fabric) is the worst when it comes to microfibre release?

One experiment compared a T-shirt made from polyester-cotton blend, a hoodie made from polyester and a sweater made from acrylic.3 The results? The acrylic sweater shed the worst, followed by the polyester hoodie and the polyester-cotton blend T-shirt came last– being 'the least bad'.

But it is not only about the materials that make up your clothes.

Other factors seem to boost (or minimize) the microfibre release: water temperature and the length of the wash cycle, how full and what type of the washing machine it is, and the structure of your clothes.19,20 It also seems that a detergent has a role in microfibre release. So, definitely don't forget to check out our tips for minimizing microfibre release.

Should I buy clothes with natural fibres & avoid synthetic fibres?

In short: not really. But it is normal for our instincts to jump to a conclusion that in theory (or in our mind) makes sense. But the reality is more complicated.

As with many complex topics, microfibre pollution is not a black-and-white issue. There is a grey area. There are a lot of unknowns. And we kind of need to learn to accept it. But why? What would happen if we would just stay away from synthetics and only buy clothes made with natural materials?

There are a few points to think about:

1. All clothes – made from natural or synthetic fibres – have an impact

If we switch to natural plant-based fibres like cotton, linen or hemp, it will result in greater pressure on water and land use – considering our current (over)consumption rates.10

For instance, cotton has its own dark side. Namely, this fibre is one of the largest users of water globally.15 And when we talk about conventional cotton (that is not grown organically), the heavy use of pesticides is a problem on its own.1
 


Okay, cotton might not be the best alternative, but what about synthetic plant-based fibres like rayon or viscose? Well, if they are not grown under an environmentally responsible program, their use might be linked to deforestation.

2. There are two coins to the microfibre issue, and one is feeding the other

As you already know, microfibres are not only a threat due to their inability to biodegrade. They also absorb chemicals. Where do these chemicals mostly come from?

It is possible that they are introduced into our ecosystems from natural textiles which use a lot of chemicals during their production. These chemicals have the potential to contribute to the eco-toxicity and human-toxicity impacts of microfibres.17

3. Animals don't deserve to be the victims of our (still unsustainable) consumption

In the conversation about (micro)plastics, people are often encouraged to choose garments made with animal-based 'materials'. First things first: there are plenty of reasons to stay away from unethical wool and the leather industry is cruel too.

But if we could put the ethics aside, the truth is: animal products are not as sustainable as one might think. Leather and wool are the worst materials in terms of eutrophication – which among others, causes water quality to significantly decrease.21 And right after problematic silk, also in terms of global warming.

4. Living plastic-free in today's world is difficult (if not impossible)

We live in a world where almost everything around us is made (at least partially) out of plastic. So, it is okay to tell yourself that being a 100% sustainable consumer is not realistic. Or even if it would be – your life would probably be extremely difficult and isolating.

You can be kind to yourself. And accept that trying your best while not being 100% perfect (especially in the world that makes sustainable living difficult) is enough.

"We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly." – Anne Marie Bonneau, Zero Waste Chef

The root of the microfibre problem

The root of the microfibre problem, as with many other global issues we are facing, is overconsumption. Especially considering the fact that nowadays, more than 60% of global textiles are produced with synthetic fabrics.17
 

Reading tip: Born to buy? From consumerism to slow fashion and self-love with thoughts and tips from experts Marieke Eyskoot, Babette Porcelijn from Think Big Act Now, Aja Barber and more!


But maybe this is not so surprising. Synthetic fibres are not only cheap, but they also have many benefits such as being versatile, lightweight, resilient against warmth and providing breathability and stretch.3 All properties that are looked for in sportswear or winter clothes.

So, it is understandable that synthetic materials are used in such amounts. Replacing synthetics in 60% of all textiles with a better material is probably not even possible just yet. And if we won't be waving goodbye to synthetic materials any time soon – what can we do to stop the microfibre pollution?

The solution to microfibre pollution…

...is complicated. But there are a few things you can do!

What can I do to contribute to a world with fewer microfibres?

First things first: don't get overwhelmed (but we won't blame you if you do). As we mentioned already, microfibre pollution is a complex problem. It won't be solved in a day by one person. But there is something you can do to help…1,2,10,17,19,20,22,23
 

  • Buy less: the more we consume, the worse the impact on the planet. There is no(t yet a) perfect textile with zero impact on the planet, animals and our fellow humans. So, try to stay away from unnecessary and impulsive purchases. And when you actually need something, make sure it is vegan, ethical and as sustainable as possible.
  • Buy clothes of high quality: they appear to shed less. And remember, fast fashion and high quality is not a combination we see that often.
  • Wash your clothes less often: got a coffee stain on your jeans, what a great start to your day, right? Before you throw it in a washing machine, consider washing them in your hands. When it is just about the odour of your clothes, hang your clothes outside for a while. Fresh air does magic!
  • Make sure your washing machine is as full as possible: a full load means there is less friction and therefore, fewer microfibres are shed.
  • Wash your clothes with cold water (at a lower temperature)*: because hot water was shown to release more microfibres.
  • Wash your clothes for a shorter time: the shorter the wash cycle, the fewer microfibres are released. Together with washing your clothes at a lower temperature, it also helps to prolong your clothes' lifecycle and saves some energy too.
  • Use liquid organic detergent*: powder detergents have grains with a 'scrub' function that result in loosening the fibres which contributes to more microfibres being released. It was also shown that using no detergent or bio detergent sometimes resulted in the release of fewer microfibres.
  • Don't throw out your lint filters down the sink: they should go into the trash instead, so microfibres don't end up in our waters.
  • Use front-loading washing machine*: it seems that they can reduce microfibre shedding when you compare them to the top-loading ones. Does it mean you need to buy a new washing machine? Of course not, but if a day comes when you need a new one, it might be good to remember this article. 😉
  • Consider using a Guppyfriend washing bag: fabrics shed 75-86% fewer fibres when a Guppyfriend is used (according to a German research institute). You can easily put your synthetic clothing in the bag, and after the wash, you can collect the synthetic fibres and throw them away in a container, so the fibres don't escape.
  • Consider using the PlanetCare washing machine filter: it catches about 90% of released synthetic microfibres.
  • Opt for tightly woven synthetic fabrics, when given the choice. It was shown that a compact woven structure and highly twisted yarns (as opposed to those with a looser structure such as knitted or lower twist) release fewer microfibres. Unfortunately, looking at it realistically, we both know it's not always doable – just because you as a consumer don't have enough information about the fabric.
  • Choose recycled plastic over raw plastic materials: taking out plastic waste in the form of water bottles or fishing nets from the oceans and using them (instead of raw materials) to make something valuable has a lower environmental impact. At the same time, some of the waste will find its way back to the oceans – in the form of microfibres.
    • Choose recycled plastic materials in fashion items that don't need to be washed that often. Think of swimwear that you wear just a few times a year and can be easily washed in your hands, raincoats, jackets or shoes.

There is no clear scientific consensus on the suggestions with an asterisk(*). Some research suggests that these tips can lead to fewer microfibres being released, other studies report no clear evidence of any meaningful effect. Of course, it won't hurt to follow this advice anyways – but we clearly need more research into this. Stay tuned!

Shifting the focus: microfibres need to be tackled systemically

Breathe in and breathe out. We know reading this article might have been a bit overwhelming. While it is important to acknowledge that our clothing has a huge role in the issue of (micro)plastic pollution, remember that the weight of the whole world doesn't lay on your shoulders.

You can do your part by buying less and with the principles of a more sustainable fashion in mind. Remember that using a Guppyfriend bag and following the washing advice above is just a first step towards tackling the microfibre issue. Next to radically changing our (over)consumption habits, we also need other solutions.

The fashion industry needs to be held accountable for microfibre pollution.10 We need them to design and manufacture clothes in a way so they release fewer microfibres, last longer and are easily recyclable. Yes, circular fashion is the way to go!

Who else do we need in our fight club against these tiny particles? Researchers and innovators who will improve waste-water treatment plants and washing machine filters, so we will be able to catch 'em all. We also need legislators who will then ensure that these innovations are actually used – without burdening regular people. Simply, consumers shouldn't be burdened with paying for solutions to a problem that is caused by the multibillionaire fashion industry.

Sources

1. 'What to Do About Microfibres in Clothing.' I. Wolfe. 2021
2. 'What Are Microfibers? Here's What You Can Do to Avoid Them.' S. Hirsh. 2019
3. 'More than ever, our clothes are made of plastic. Just washing them can pollute the oceans.' B. Resnick. 2019
4. 'Microfiber.' S.A. Hosseini Ravandi, M. Valizadeh. 2011
5. 'WHAT ARE MICROFIBERS?' Ocean Clean Wash. n.d.
6. 'Zooming in on the Five Types of Microplastics.' Waterkeeper. 2016
7. 'Microfibres from apparel and home textiles: Prospects for including microplastics in environmental sustainability assessment.' B. Henry, K. Laitala, I. G. Klepp. 2019
8. 'Primary microplastics in the oceans.' J. Boucher, D. Friot. 2017
9. 'What are microfibers and why are our clothes polluting the oceans?' K. Brodde. 2017
10. 'Our clothes shed microfibres – here’s what we can do…' S. Somers. 2020
11. 'THE ISSUE.' Ocean Clean Wash. n.d.
12. 'Plastic Soup in Your Laundry.' C. Huynh. 2019
13. 'How worried should we be about microplastics?' G. Readfearn. 2019
14. 'It’s on our plates and in our poo, but are microplastics a health risk?' G. Readfearn. 2021
15. 'Microfibre Shedding – Topic FAQ.' European Outdoor Group, Outdoor Industry Association. n.d.
16. 'Which Textile Fibres Cause Microplastic Pollution When Washed? Here’s What the Studies Reveal So Far…' J. Nini. 2018
17. 'Microplastic pollution from textiles: A literature review.' B. Henry, K. Laitala, I. G. Klepp. 2018
18. 'Microfiber pollution: an ongoing major environmental issue related to the sustainable development of textile and clothing industry.' J. Liu, J. Liang, J. Ding, G. Zhang, X. Zeng, Q. Yang, B. Zhu, Weidong Gao. 2021
19. 'Improved garment longevity and reduced microfibre release are important sustainability benefits of laundering in colder and quicker washing machine cycles.' L. Cotton, A. S.Hayward, N. J.Lant, R. S. Blackburn. 2020
20. 'Release of synthetic microplastic plastic fibres from domestic washing machines: Effects of fabric type and washing conditions.' I. E. Napper, R. C. Thompson. 2016
21. 'The Myth Of Sustainable Leather.' S. Schmitz. 2017
22. 'CONSUMERS.' Ocean Clean Wash. n.d.
23. 'Ins and Outs of Recycled Plastic Clothing.' I. Wolfe. 2019