Micro-fibre pollution: why what you wear matters

Whilst pollution from plastic bags, coffee cups and microbeads has come under intense scrutiny in recent months, another microplastic pollutant is passing under our noses on a daily basis. This pesky plastic is barely detectable to the eye, yet is polluting our ocean ecosystems at a terrifying rate. It is synthetic microfibres, and it’s a macro problem.

These microfibers come from the synthetic clothes and textiles so prevalent in daily life. It’s been estimated that 700,000 fibres could be released into wastewater on an average wash and spin load. Whilst natural fibres like wool and cotton are biodegradable, synthetic fibres like polyester and nylon are not. These fibres are manmade from fossil fuels so, not only are the CO2 emissions from polyester production 3x that of cotton, but the fibres hang around for a loooong time.

Take a look at the clothes you’re wearing now, what are they made of? Mine are mostly cotton (it’s a lounging kind of day), but my Sweaty Betty yoga top is 50% Merino wool, 34% Tencel, 16% Polyamide. It’s an interesting example because this includes all three of the fibre types; wool is natural, Tencel is a regenerated fibre from wood cellulose and Polyamide is manmade, very similar to polyester. In fact, polyester can be found in 60% of our clothing and it’s easy to see why; polyester is cheap, durable, crease-resistant and easy care. In some ways it’s more environmentally-friendly to produce than cotton because it has a lower water footprint and there’s no need for pesticides, but it does have a bigger carbon footprint.

Despite polyester’s useful properties I tend to prioritise natural fibres over synthetics because they are exactly that – natural. I have been aware of the ability to release microfiber pollution through the process of washing our clothes but it wasn’t until I spoke to Gintare from Amberoot that it really hit home. Gintare has a close affinity to nature and is passionate about reducing plastic pollution. Based in Brighton, UK, Gintare left a job in banking to set up a sustainable and ethical online clothing shop. Her goal is to encourage consumption behaviours that do not have a negative impact on the environment, other people or animals. Although she works with brands that emphasis holistic ethical work practices, the story behind Amberoot isn’t one of fairtrade or organic clothing per se, but instead is focused on shunning the pollution caused by synthetic fibres, turning instead back to natural ones. Natural fibres doesn’t mean just cotton and wool either; there is a growing list of exciting options from bamboo to orange fibre!

Gintare says: “The research regarding the microfiber effect on soil, air and health effects on humans is currently ongoing. There was some research regarding the health effects of inhaling microfibers and on health effects for soil and eventually us. But this is just very beginning, more studies are surely to come.”

The environmental impact of washing synthetic fibres has attracted a few studies but results are not conclusive. A study by the University of Plymouth for example found that more microfibers are released in the first four washes a new garment receives and that fabric composition and detergent choice also affect the amount of fibres released. Polyester-cotton mix consistently shed significantly fewer fibres than either polyester or acrylic. The addition of bio-detergent and fabric conditioner increased the numbers of fibres shed. Another study from earlier this year found that worn (old) fabrics shed more in the wash as did looser textile weaves.

Based on the research there are things you can do to limit your microplastic fibre footpoot:

1. If you need the performance of polyester, try poly-cotton mix (or something like my Sweaty Betty top) rather than 100% synthetic fibre.
2. Wash at a lower temperature. In the aforementioned study by Imogen Napper at Plymouth, washing at 40 degrees led to more fibres shed than at 30.
3. Try a GuppyFriend washing bag.
4. If you know a plumber, you could attach a filter system to your machine. It seems to me that manufacturers should be working towards this as standard. Maybe they are.
5. Look for natural fibres, care for them and wear them for years to come.

Amberoot is well worth a browse because Gintare has curated a range of beautiful brands, many of which were new to me. What’s particularly useful about the website is you can shop by accreditation (e.g. Fairwear, B Corp, PETA) as well as by brand. Buying natural, biodegradable fabrics means that you can avoid the pollution effects scientists are now discovering are caused by synthetic fibres. Amberoot stocks men’s and women’s clothes as well as home goods. I’m very tempted by the Motumo loose-fit linen dresses (see above)- yes they will need ironing, but I just wouldn’t wash it all that often! I also love the lingerie and nightwear by AmaElla and knitwear by Izzy Lane. The latter is knitted from the undyed wool of rescued sheep. If that doesn’t make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, I don’t know what will.

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2 thoughts on “Micro-fibre pollution: why what you wear matters

  1. Gintare says:

    Emma, thank you soooo much for such a great post! I’ll be forever grateful to you for raising awareness about an incredibly important issue – #microfibers washed away from our synthetic clothing and for informing about healthier alternatives! You are A m a z i n g ‼️❤️

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