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Beyond the Bale : June 2018
RISING TIDE OF MICROPLASTIC POLLUTION FROM TEXTILES As much as 20-35% of microplastics in the marine environment are fibres from synthetic clothing and this amount is increasing. In contrast, natural fibres such as wool readily biodegrade and do not accumulate in the environment. If you Google ‘plastic pollution’ or ‘microplastic pollution’ your search result will bring up a worrying series of images. Look at your own peril. Microplastic particles, including microfibres, are now ubiquitous in aquatic and land-based ecosystems globally. It is estimated that 0.6 -1.7 million tons of microfibres are released into the ocean every year. Without active intervention, the abundance of these <5mm in diameter particles will increase as consumption of plastics and man-made fibres in clothing expands to meet demand from a rising world population and increasing regional incomes. Microfibres can enter the environment through sources such as fibres shed from synthetic apparel during use and washing, or through other secondary sources, predominantly degradation and fragmentation of larger pieces of synthetic textile waste. NEW REVIEW BACKS WOOL A new review into microplastic pollution from textiles recommends an increased use of natural non-synthetic materials, such as wool, in global textile markets, because wool biodegrades in marine as well as land environments and therefore does not cause microfibre pollution. The review, published in February by Consumption Research Norway (SIFO), was conducted by Adjunct Associate Professor Beverley Henry of the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and researchers from SIFO, with support from AWI and the Cotton Research and Development Corporation. “An effective strategy for consumers to reduce their contribution to microfibre pollution would be to choose garments made from natural fibres which are biodegradable and do not contribute to the build-up of microplastics in the environment,” Dr Henry said. “Additionally, the positive attributes of wool in terms of durability, recyclability and low impact care (less frequent washing, at lower temperatures with less detergent/conditioner) are consistent with strategies to minimise shedding of microfibres to the environment.” “The proportion of natural fibre in global textile products should be maximised since there is evidence that these biodegrade relatively rapidly and do not accumulate in the environment in the same way as synthetics such as polyester and nylon.” Dr Beverley Henry, QUT The review is a part of a larger work by AWI towards better accounting for the use phase in Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of apparel (see page 16). There have been no LCA studies that have yet attempted to include impacts of microplastic pollution. Angus Ireland, AWI's Program Manager for Fibre Advocacy and Eco Credentials, says the review helps demonstrate the eco-credentials of natural fibres in a world where there is increasing concern about the effect on the environment of synthetic textiles. “Natural fibres such as wool readily biodegrade and consequently don't amass in the environment. This important difference between natural and synthetic fibres needs to be accounted for in Life Cycle Assessment for the LCA to be credible and scientifically defensible.” NEGATIVE IMPACT OF MICROPLASTICS While the full extent of the negative impacts of microplastic pollution on aquatic habitats and organisms is yet to be fully understood, the current research suggests physical, chemical and biological impacts occur throughout the food chain including leaching of toxic chemicals and starvation in affected organisms. Fibre-shaped microplastics appear to be of greater environmental consequence than more regular shaped particles due to a tendency for entanglement in the digestive tract that can lead to blockages and a higher chance of compromised growth, reproduction or even starvation. Chemical impacts may also be enhanced since the larger surface area of fibres potentially allows greater sorption of harmful compounds and a higher retention in the gut allows more time for leakage of plastic additives. The full extent of the impact on human health is yet to be known. However, the review states microplastics may enter the human body through the food chain and drinking water. Furthermore, chemicals from surrounding water are attracted to the surface of the microfibres, raising the risk of human exposure to carcinogenic and non-carcinogenic compounds when consuming seafood. Microplastics can also host bacteria linked with human gastrointestinal infections. More information The report Microplastic pollution from textiles: A literature review is available free from www.hioa.no/eng When you ‘throw away’ plastic, there isn’t really an ‘away’, it just accumulates somewhere else such as in our oceans and on our beaches – there are warnings that there will be more waste plastic in the sea than fish by 2050. PHOTO: Phonix_a Studies have estimated there to be 1.4 million trillion microfibers currently in the world’s oceans – that’s 1,400,000,000,000,000,000 microfibres! 14 OFF FARM