Exeter, Devon UK • Jul 19, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home ScienceEnvironment Wearing Your Heart on Your Sleeve: The Hidden Problem of Microfibres

Wearing Your Heart on Your Sleeve: The Hidden Problem of Microfibres

Issy Murray explores the damaging effects of microfibres in our clothes and explains the actions we can take to reduce it.
5 mins read
Written by

Wearing Your Heart on Your Sleeve: The Hidden Problem of Microfibres

Issy Murray explores the damaging effects of microfibres in our clothes and explains the actions we can take to reduce it.

In the war against plastics, microplastics tend to get very little attention (in comparison to other forms like single-use), yet they cause even more of a negative impact on our environment. In fact, of the estimated 8-12 million tonnes of plastic that goes into the ocean per year, a large proportion is made of microplastics according to Louise Edge of Greenpeace. Newcastle University has now brought forward a worrying report concerning one form of microplastic: microfibres. 

These microfibres, found in our synthetic clothes and released during the washing process, are tiny (less than five millimetres in length and mere micrometres in diameter). This means they don’t get caught in machine filters and instead, leach into the environment going from domestic waste water, to sewage treatment plants, and then eventually into rivers and oceans. The reason this is such a huge issue is because they cause widescale environmental damage, the extent of which we still don’t know. Their small size means they have a large surface area over which chemicals can be transmitted, and as well as being toxic themselves, they can also absorb toxins.

On average, around 600,000 more microfibres are released in a delicate cycle compared to standard cycle.

Unable to degrade, they accumulate within food chains and can potentially result in the death of animals before they reach reproductive age, which is bound to have ramifications for biodiversity. A study from the University of the Exeter has shown food contaminated with microfibres altered the behaviour and stunted the growth of crabs. This problem is expected to get worse and the effects are already being felt in a big way.

An article from Vox claims 73% of fish caught at mid-ocean depths in the Northwest Atlantic had microplastics in their stomachs. They are found everywhere: from Arctic ice, to the bottom of the Mariana Trench (so you see, it is not just the tip of the iceberg). The extent is large but indeterminable. 

Research done before Newcastle University’s findings, showed that around 4500 microfibres or more are released per gram of washing. This number varies depending on a number of factors, including: washing machine settings, type of material the clothing is made of, and type of detergent and fabric softener used.

Acrylic material has been revealed to produce the most microfibres, 1.5 times that of polyester and 5 times that of polyester-cotton blends according to a 2016 Guardian article. However, what researchers at Newcastle University have discovered, using equipment such as tergotometers and DigiEye cameras, is that contrary to prior belief, using a ‘delicates’ setting to wash your laundry actually increases the number of microfibres produced. This indicates that it is not spinning action but volume of water that encourages more microfibres to be released. On average, around 600,000 more fibres are released in a delicate cycle compared to standard cycle. 

Plastic microfibres identified in a marine environment

So what do we do to combat an issue that takes place in our everyday life such as washing laundry? Washing clothes is not exactly a luxury unlike other detrimental behaviour, like taking a private jet, where the solution appears very simple. However, there are a few ways in which you can try to reduce the impact of your laundry routine. The simplest of these is to wash your clothes only when necessary, and to make sure you do full loads.

Another method is to reduce the amount of new clothes you buy, and to try to avoid synthetic materials like acrylic, polyester and nylon. Currently 60% of the materials making up our clothes world-wide contain these fabrics, as they are more affordable than natural fabrics meaning manufacturers have an incentive to produce these clothes.

Even after following these ideas, some microfibres will still be getting into the environment. This means the real solution lies with designing a washing machine that will help to dramatically reduce our plastic footprint – for example, a waterless washing machine, or creating fabrics which are better quality and made with anti-shed treatment. 

Being aware of how damaging microplastics are, despite being less visible than other forms of pollution, is a step in the right direction at least.

You may also like

Subscribe to our newsletter

Sign Up for Our Newsletter