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, having been investigated by the Environmental Audit Committee through its Sustainability of the fashion industry inquiry.
In their final report - Fixing fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability - published in February 2019, the work of Professor Richard Thompson and Imogen Napper is cited extensively. The written and oral evidence Professor Thompson provided to the inquiry also features heavily, furthering evidencing the impact of Plymouth research on the national agenda.
Previous inquiries into the threats posed by microplastics have since become the subject of Government legislation and Professor Thompson has also been an influential figure in those inquiries.
Speaking about the report publication, Professor Richard Thompson OBE said:
"I am pleased to see the report highlights the critical importance of product design in helping to reduce the environmental impacts of the fashion industry. In my view this principle needs to be applied much more widely.
"Better consideration, at the design stage, could help reduce many of the environmental impacts associated with current plastics use; it is only by taking this broader perspective that society will be able to realise the benefits of plastics without the current negative consequences."
In his evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee, Professor Thompson made 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.”
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 fashionVisit 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 solutionsFind out more about the International Marine Litter Research Unit
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