Fibres, fashion and the oceans

Our TV screens are filled almost weekly with stories about mountains of plastic waste in oceans and on coastlines. And programmes such as Blue Planet II and, more recently, the BBC’s Drowning in Plastic, have demonstrated the impact it is having on the marine environment.

Those images tend to show plastic bags, bottles, packages and other throwaway items. But look more closely and there is much that goes unseen?

World-leading experts in the field of microplastics, the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University of Plymouth is currently looking into the presence of synthetic fibres in the water column.

Led by Professor Richard Thompson OBE, who acted as a consultant for the Drowning in Plastic documentary, they have already demonstrated that a single wash of clothing can result in more than 700,000 fibres being released into waste water.

And current research funded by Defra, involving Research Fellow Imogen Napper and Research Assistant Florence Parker-Jurd, is looking at the wider distribution of these textiles and fibres and the threats they pose.

More than 700,000 microscopic fibres could be released into waste water during each use of a domestic washing machine, with many of them likely to pass through sewage treatment and into the environment

The issue has the potential to garner greater public awareness and is being investigated by the Environmental Audit Committee through its Sustainability of the fashion industry inquiry.

Previous inquiries into the threats posed by microplastics have since become the subject of Government legislation. Professor Thompson has been an influential figure in those inquiries, and a wider report by the Government Office for Science into the Future of the Sea.

He has now had written evidence accepted by the EAC for its inquiry, in which he highlights some of the key existing research and future challenges the industry faces.

These include:

  • Synthetic fibres are abundant in the natural environment
  • Synthetic fibres can be ingested by a range of organisms including commercially important species
  • While there have been studies indicating harm from microplastics there has been little work specifically examining the effects of fibres
  • Some fibres from washing are intercepted in wastewater treatment but some escape to the environment
  • Fibres intercepted in wastewater treatment may be returned to the environment if sewage sludge is spread on land
  • There are considerable differences in the quantity of fibres released from different types of clothing, indicating that interventions at the design stage may be most effective in reducing fibre emissions.

So what can be done? In his evidence, Professor Thompson makes a number of recommendations based on the research of his team in this area.

“Our research indicates that modification of the domestic laundering process (temperature, type of detergent, conditioner etc) has minimal effect on fibre emission compared to garment type. One approach that is being developed is to capture fibres during laundering either with a filter bag used inside the washing machine or an external filter fitted to the effluent pipe. Devices to achieve this are available commercially, but to date there have been no independent tests to evaluate efficacy.

"Our work indicates considerable variation in emissions (over 70-80% of the variation) associated with different types of garment, and preliminary trials indicated acrylic garments release more fibres then polyester. However more work is needed to establish the underlying causes of these differences, which may be associated with yarn type, weave or garment construction.
"Nonetheless, this evidence indicates substantial reductions in emissions to the environment could be achieved by changes in design practice. Reducing emissions to the environment is synonymous with durability and extension of garment life in service and hence is central to the wider issue of sustainable fashion.”

<p>A clump of acryllic fibres seen under microscopes at the University's Electron Microscopy Centre</p>
Washing clothes releases thousands of microplastic particles into environment, study shows. Read the news story
University receives government funding to analyse impact of tyres and textiles on the marine environment. Read about the research
<p>Close up of a washing machine</p>
<p>Fibres floating in water</p>
<p>Close up of blue clothes hanging up</p>

Professor Richard Thompson’s full submission to the Environmental Audit Committee

Reducing emissions to the environment is synonymous with durability and extension of garment life in service and hence is central to the wider issue of sustainable fashion

Visit the inquiry page

International Marine Litter Research Unit

Marine litter is a global environmental problem with items of debris now contaminating habitats from the poles to the equator, from the sea surface to the deep sea.

Furthering our understanding of litter on the environment and defining solutions

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Marine Institute

Representing 3000 staff, researchers and students, the University of Plymouth's Marine Institute is the first and largest such institute in the UK. 

We provide the external portal to our extensive pool of world-leading experts and state-of-the-art facilities, enabling us to understand the relationship between the way we live, the seas that surround us and the development of sustainable policy solutions.

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