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Why Clothing Brands Should Focus on Reducing Ocean-bound Microfibers and Microplastics

18 May 2018

With growing social interest combined with policy drivers at governmental level, many organisations 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.

The 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:

  • 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)
  • Continuing efforts from government to ban and tax single use plastic products in a similar fashion to that seen for microbeads.


What are microplastics?

Microplastics are very small pieces of plastic that measure less than 5mm in diameter. Due to their small size, they can easily find their way past water treatment processes and flow freely into waterways, seas and the marine environment, causing pollution and damage. 

Microbeads were the first form of single-use microplastic to be banned by the UK government. Since 1st January 2018, products containing microbeads, mostly commonly cosmetic and personal care products, were no longer allowed to be manufactured. As of 30th June 2018, the second phase of the legislation came into effect, preventing products containing microbeads from being sold at all.

Our blog microbeads explains more fully about the bans and suggests how we can help you to reformulate your products.

What are microfibers and where do they come from?

Microfibers also fall into the family of microplastics.

Microfibers are defined as synthetic fibers that have a diameter of less than 10 micrometres, much smaller than the diameter of a human hair.

Plastic microfibers are a huge problem mainly arise from washing clothes and textiles in a washing machine. Notable materials that contain synthetic microfibers, include: 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. 

Why are microfibers bad for the marine environment?

Once released, these fibres wreak havoc in the environment as they are often mistaken for food by marine organisms, such as plankton and small fish. Once ingested they have been found to lead to death, stunted growth and altered behaviors.

Fish-and-plastic-pollution-microplasticsLarger marine animals, such as whales and sea birds, who feed on the smaller organisms are also affected with feeding over time leading to big build ups of plastics in their digestive tracts. Furthermore, humans can also be affected by contaminated fish we eat in the same way. This can lead to people consuming microplastics, potentially causing negative health implications. 

Once in the marine environment, microfibers are incredibly difficult to remove. 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 have been found within deep sea crustaceans nearly 11km deep in the Mariana Trench, highlighting the vast scale of the issue.

One piece of clothing can release up to 700,000 fibres in a single wash. It’s estimated that throughout the lifetime of one million t-shirts, 1450kg of plastic is released into the environment, the majority of this being microplastics released during washing and transport.

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 clothes to help reduce leaching should be considered as a minimum, but there are some other avenues that companies can take. Brands and manufacturers can 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.

One of Anthesis’ key service areas is to help organisations 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. Sustainable Plastics guide button

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 on the form below. We have experienced experts who have worked with many organisations within the apparel sector who are here to help you make an informed decision - read much more information on our apparel and textile sustainability page. 


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