Synthetic material are increasingly used in the retail industry because they are cheaper than natural fabrics, and the industry even promotes certain of their properties such as wrinkling less or drying faster. But they also pollute more than natural fabrics, notably because of the spread of microfibers they cause in our waters.

Microfibers – tiny threads shed from fabric – are being found in alarming profusion on shorelines where wastewater is released. The spread of microfiber has similar consequences than that of Microbeads, solid plastic particles, which have recently been banned in the USA. This similar consequence is explained by the fact that an increasing proportion of fabrics are now made of polyester, polyamide, and polypropylene (Prolen), all conjugations of plastic. The microfibers are thus essentially plastic, and there spread is like that spread of Microbeads’ solid plastic particles.

Researchers have been trying to locate the source of microfibers’ infiltration of our shorelines and the answer is unequivocal: washing machines.

When we do our laundry fibers get released in the machine’s washing water and discharged onto pipelines to then pass through the filters of wastewater treatment plants, which are only capable of filtering 60% of fiber deposits, the rest invades our shorelines worldwide. “40% of them enter rivers, lakes and oceans,” according to researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who carried study funded by the outdoor clothing brand Patagonia.

Other experiments sampling wastewater from domestic washing machines published in the American Chemical Society have demonstrated that a single garment can produce more than 1900 fibres per wash. “This suggests that a large proportion of microplastic fibers found in the marine environment may be derived from sewage as a consequence of washing synthetic clothes,” the research said.

These particles get subsequently eaten by aquatic life, and become present in our consumed fish, seafood, shellfish, shrimp… Sherri Sam Mason, a chemist at the State University of New York who tested samples at lake Michigan, said to the Chicago Tribune another concern was also the fibers’ ability to absorb persistent organic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and to concentrate them in animals’ tissues.

The increase in production of bad quality apparel, through the use of more synthetic textiles (in which microfibers are more present) is making matters worse and the retail industry is being very slow on proposing possible solutions to the issue. Some environmentally aware brands have taken action such as PatagoniaColumbia Sportswear, and 18 others, studying the issue through the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), a trade group consisting of about 1,300 companies around the world. The group Inditex, which owns Zara, said to the Guardian that microfibers fall into the category of issues covered by its Global Water Strategy, which includes ongoing plans to evaluate and improve wastewater management at its mills.

Solutions are also expected from the household appliance industry, as it is indeed through the washing machine that the fibers are dispelled. Placing a nanoball in our washing machine that would attract and enclose the fibers is a proposed answer by Maria Westerbros of the Plastic Soup FoundationTersus Solutions has also come up with a promising water-less washing machines. With funding from the Energy commission, the Colorado based company has developed a machine in which textiles are washed in pressurized carbon dioxide instead of water.

Many suggest that governments should take action. Finding the technology to develop wastewater treatment plants that can filter sewage water completely from the fibers would be an ideal state funded solution for example. So would be incentivizing engineers and designers to find a solution. A nano-ball to rid our oceans of plastic perhaps?

In the meantime as a consumer you should avoid synthetic fabrics altogether. If you have to wash synthetic apparel, hand-washing will shed considerably less microfibers than using a machine.

Source & copyright University of California at Santa Barbara-UCSB news 2010