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Why Reducing Microfibers in the Ocean Should be Top of Clothing Brands' Agenda

18 May 2018

With growing social interest combined with policy drivers at governmental level, many organizations are joining pledges, creating campaigns and reviewing their options to change the way they operate to help reduce the amount of used plastic that’s not recycled. For companies, this involves either attempting to reduce the amount of plastic they use or finding plastic alternatives to adapt to policy changes.

Plastic-pollution-in-oceanThe marine environment is the unintended recipient of around 8 million tonnes of mis-managed plastic waste every year. In the wake of the Blue Planet II documentary series, the UK is rapidly attempting to modify its relationship with plastic to help prevent the continuing misuse of the environment.

Examples of this include the potential introduction of a Deposit Return Scheme; the WRAP Plastic Pact, that has attracted commitment from large organisations to hit packaging reduction targets by 2025; the Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group (PCRRG) and the continuing efforts from government to ban and tax single use plastic products in a similar fashion to that seen for microbeads.

The microbead ban

Microbeads fall under the broad umbrella of microplastics, that are now widely known to cause a whole host of problems for the environment due to their size. Microplastics are pieces of plastic smaller than 5mm in diameter and can easily find their way past our various water treatment processes and flow freely into the marine environment.

Microbeads – most commonly found in cosmetic products - were the first form of single-use plastic to be banned by the UK government. Since 1st January 2018, products containing microbeads were no longer allowed to be manufactured, and as of 30th June 2018, the second phase of the ban is set to come into force, preventing microbead containing products from being sold at all.

Our blog on microbeads explains more fully about the bans and suggests how we can help you to reformulate your products in light of the upcoming deadline.  

Why microfibers are bad for the marine environment

Along with microbeads, microfibers also fall into the family of microplastics. Plastic microfibers are a huge problem that mainly arise from washing clothes and textiles that contain synthetic fibres, notable acrylic, nylon and polyester. As yet, microfibers haven’t been considered for any bans, but with the growing social pressures off the back of Blue Planet II, clothing manufacturers are considering their corporate responsibility for the issue more readily. 

Once released, microfibers are incredibly difficult to remove from the environment. Consequently, many of the current solutions are preventative measures to help consumers reduce fibre release during washing. To add to this, recent research has proven that microfibers have already reached some of the most extreme locations and depths of our oceans. Synthetic fibres such as nylon, PVC and PVA being found within deep sea crustaceans nearly 11km deep in the Mariana Trench1, highlight the vast scale of this issue.

One piece of clothing can release up to 700,000 fibres in a single wash2, and it’s estimated that throughout the lifetime of 1 million t-shirts, 1450kg of plastic is released into the environment, with the majority of this being microplastics released during the use (washing) and transport phases3.

These fibres wreak havoc in the environment as they are often mistaken for food by many small marine organisms, such as plankton and small fish. Once ingested they have been found to lead to death, stunted growth and altered behaviors4. Larger marine animals such as whales and sea birds are also affected, as they feed on the affected organisms and get build ups of plastics collecting in their digestive tracts. Not only this, but the fish we eat as humans are affected in the same way, which can lead to people consuming microplastics, potentially causing negative health implications. 

What can be done to help reduce microfibers?

There are some simple things that can be done to help reduce the impact of washing synthetic textiles – it’s important for retailers and clothing brands to promote this to their customers.

For example:

  1. Wash synthetic clothes less frequently
  2. Consider using a wash bag to trap fibres
  3. Purchase washing machine lint filters
  4. Buying higher quality clothes that last longer and shed less fibres
  5. Spread the word of the issue to others

Better guidance on washing to help reduce leaching should be considered as a minimum, but there are some other avenues that companies can take. However, trying to tackle the problem before textiles get to the ‘use’ stage can be much more challenging. To help address this, brands and manufacturers can also consider switching to fibres that do not produce microfibers, like natural fibres. Fibre switching is not always a simple choice as there is other sustainability aspects involved, such as environmental impact, fibre performance and technical qualities, cost and supply chain complexity.

Sustainable Plastics guide buttonOne of Anthesis’ key service areas is to help organizations consider the whole range of lifecycle impacts alongside making informed choices and avoiding unintended consequences. As well, we regularly work with clients to try and mitigate problems associated with emerging issues by conducting horizon scanning and research to identify solutions and risks that could apply to your business. 

If you would like to find out more about how we could help you tackle the plastic problem, please contact our apparel expert Susan Harris or complete the form below. We have experts who have worked with many organizations within the apparel industry who are here to help.


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