Plastics & Microplastics PollutionBy Be Quality | Comments: 0 | January 20, 2022
What does it have to do with fashion?
Certainly, we are all well aware of the plastics & microplastics pollution on the planet. But do we know at which extent?
Why is the Plastics & Microplastics Pollution important?
Meanwhile, we are running to find solutions to a problem that is there since decades. As a consequence, in many countries in the world plastic bags are banned. But still the plastic problem has not been solved, as you can easily see. Certainly, a study in 2017 shows that globally 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic were produced. From which only 9% was recycled. In other words, 6 billion metric tons became plastic waste. It is clear, there is still a long way to completely neutralise the impact of plastics & microplastics on our planet. I’m sure that by better understanding this phenomena, we may find real solutions that are sustainable in the long term.
In addition to the plastic debris in the environment we can clearly see, it suffers degradation through exposure to wind, sunlight, seawater, rain, etc. As a result the plastic break down into very small particles. They are better known as microplastics (< 5 mm), and nanoplastics (<1 μm). Definitely, the smaller they are, the easier they can be transported. And the more dangerous they become. They can be eaten by smaller living beings, or get into living systems without being filtered. In this way, they enter into the food chain.
Where do we find Plastics & Microplastics?
They are either in the lands, in the air, in surface water and also in sediments deep on the sea-floor. The microplastics are present in major proportion in sediments on the sea-floor. The Mediterranean sea has the highest quantity of these sediments. Furthermore, it is present in many different places around the world, on different ecosystems such as freshwater in Asia , on the Antartic, on the Atlantic, agricultural lands in China & USA… everywhere.
In addition, even on the tap water from five continents! Out of 159 samples, 83% contained plastic particles. While 93% of 259 samples of bottled water showed the presence of microplastics and fragmentation of garments discarded in landfill sites.
I discovered that microplastics are present in both indoor and outdoor air samples. And that the higher microfibre concentrations are indoors. Interesting to note, the mass of textile fibres deposit on household surfaces is of the same order of magnitude as that emitted in laundry effluent.
Impact of Plastics & Microplastics
Today we can understand better the impact plastics & microplastics have over the health of plants, animals and humans. Eventhough, there is still a lot of research to do on this matter. After reading some publications (see the links below this article), I discovered it is much more than I could think. In short, I summarize here below some of them. But you should know for each of these points there is a huge research behind with further details:
- Plastic may soffocate animals & plants or reduce their mobility. The entanglement of marine animals (i.e. Caretta caretta turtle is one of the most affected) due to plastic wastes is a big issue. It leads to wounds, hinders them to move, feed, reproduce, and potentially could cause death due to suffocation, starvation, and strangulation.
- Plastic ingestion harms the health of the marine organisms.
- In some areas of the mediterranean sea floors there is a layer of 2- 3 mm of microplastics that do not allow oxygen & sunlight to pass through. This changes radically life on those ecosystems.
- Plastics & microplastics can also release toxic compounds.
- They create a perfect surface for microbial communities to grow, some may be pathogens.
- They adsorb harmful pollutants from the environment, and when ingested by marine animals, could create important health issues to them.
- Plastic in relevant concentrations alters the endocrine system of adult fish.
And how this situation involves fashion industry?
Moreover, it is important to know that the washing of textiles is the main source of microfibres in the waters. On a global scale, estimations indicate that of all microplastics in the world’s oceans, between 20% and 35% arise from laundry of synthetic textiles. This means that every year between 0.19 and 0.37 million tonnes of textile microfibres enter the marine environment.
In addition, another study reveals the percentage of synthetic textiles microplastics in a Waste Water Treatment Plant (WWTP) discharge. These are the results: 79% polyester, 9% polyamide, 7% polypropylene, 5% acrylic.
Above all, we should note many of the garments and home textiles we use are made of synthetic fibres like polyamide, polyester, acrylic, etc. Furthermore, the microfibres are mainly synthetic fibres. Certainly, it is important to highlight that all of these fibres are plastic too. In other words, they are all polymers that come from oil with some chemical additives (similarly as plastics). And have similar chemical composition and properties. The one that is key for this article is that neither plastics or synthetic fibres are biodegradable and both contain toxic substances they release over time to the environment. For this reason, the impact they cause to the environment is enormous.
SYNTHETIC FIBRE = PLASTIC
PLASTIC is NOT BIODEGRADABLE
Indeed, global volumes of discarded clothing is estimated to be of millions of tonnes per year. In the waste sites or landfields, synthetic textiles degrade slowly over long periods, releasing microfibres and nanofibres. These are able to become airborne or be carried to aquatic systems via leachate, potentially depositing microfibres on land.
Can we consider Artificial Fibres as Natural Fibres?
Artificial fibres are man-made fibres with cellulosic raw materials instead of oil. Some of the most commonly use are Viscose, Lyocell, Modal, Bambu, Rayon, etc. I was personally assuming that artificial fibres would have a similar behaviour as natural fibres. But, I now see this is not right. Here I quote a study (link below):
“Viscose contributed 56.9% of total microfibres in deep sea sediments from the Atlantic Ocean floor. Being more than twice as abundant as polyester, which was the dominant plastic fibre. Microfibres of viscose have been reported in fish (57.8% of detected particles ingested) … and in ice cores (54%). Limited evidence on the fate of natural animal and plant fibres such as wool and cotton in the environment comes from studies. This shows that biodegradation occurs in soils in weeks to months.”
Natural Fibres are the Best choice!
This confirms that Natural Fibres do not damage any of the ecosystems in the world. Certainly, this is very interesting, as gives us a clue on which direction to take when we go shopping.
This is due to the fact that Natural Fibres are 100% biodegradable. This means that when we discard a cotton garment, or when we wash it, the particles of fibres that break from it transform into food or other organic compounds that are positive for the ecosystem. This applies also to hemp, wool, silk, linen, etc garments. Indeed, this is a very good reason to shift your wardrobe to Natural fibres.
Absolutely it is key to remember that a cotton T-shirt disappears in 2–5 months and a wool sock in 1–5 years. While plastic fibres take decades (30–40 years for polyamide fabric) to hundreds of years (450 years for disposable diapers) as reported in one of this studies.
NATURAL FIBRES = 100% BIODEGRADABLE
What can each of us do?
Certainly, you can see the problem related to plastics & microplastics is huge. And affects different areas of our daily life.
The good news is that each of us can make small actions that can generate a huge change. In conclusion to the different studies I refer to, here we have some keys we may apply on our fashion/ textile habits to reduce the quantity of plastics & microplastics we generate:
- Choose natural fibres for any new garment you buy.
- Reduce Fastfashion shopping, specially from synthetic materials (polyamide, polyester, acrylic, polar fleeces, etc)
- Use the garments you have for an extra season: this is the most sustainable practice
- Decrease the number of garments you discard every year. As an alternative, swap them, repair them, give them to someone you know will use it, etc.
- Use a front loader washing machine. Fibre loss is greater in top-loading (vertical axis) or industrial washing machines.
- Avoid tumble drying. The release of fibres during tumble drying can be up to 3,5 times higher than during washing.
B.e Quality garments are all made with natural fibres and to last for many seasons.
Be the change you want to see!!
Here below find the sources I consulted to make this article: