polyester clothing plastic

Microplastics problem exacerbated by wearing polyester clothes, study reveals

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The number of microfibres produced simply from wearing clothes made of polyester materials is worse than washing them, a study has found.

The amount of fibres released from four different items of polyester clothing when washed or worn were compared by scientists from the Institute for Polymers, Composites and Biomaterials of the National Research Council of Italy (IPCB-CNR) and the University of Plymouth.

The results showed that up to 4,000 fibres per gram of fabric could be released during a conventional wash, while up to 400 fibres per gram of fabric could be shed by items of clothing during just 20 minutes of normal activity.

Scaled up, the results indicate that one person could release almost 300 million polyester microfibres per year to the environment by washing their clothes and over 900 million to the air by simply wearing the garments.

In December 2019, shoppers were warned to avoid purchasing Christmas jumpers as they are one of the worst examples of fast fashion and are typically made from plastic fibres.

Dr Francesca De Falco, research fellow at IPCB-CNR, said: “Recently, more evidence has been accumulating on the presence of synthetic microfibres not only in aquatic environments, but also in atmospheric ones.

“That is why we decided to design this set of experiments to study microfibre release by garments to both media. This is a type of pollution that should be mainly fought at its source, the fabric itself, but we investigated the influence of different textile parameters on the release.

“Results have shown that textiles with a very compact structure like woven, with yarns highly twisted and composed of continuous filaments, can release less microfibres to both air and water.”

The four items of clothing that were tested were a 100 per cent green polyester blouse; a 100 per cent blue polyester t-shirt; a 100 per cent polyester dress, and a 50 per cent polyester and 50 per cent cotton pink sweatshirt.

They were washed at 40°C and any released fibres were collected. The test showed that anywhere between 700 and 4,000 individual fibres could be released per gram of fabric during a single wash.

The polyester/cotton garment showed the greatest release during both washing and wearing, with a woven polyester one releasing the least quantity of microfibres.

The researchers say that previous estimations of microplastic pollution have actually underestimated the importance of synthetic textiles, since they did not take into account the quantities released directly into the air.

Professor Richard Thompson OBE, head of the University of Plymouth’s International Marine Litter Research Unit, said, “The key story here is that the emission of fibres while wearing clothes is likely of a similar order of magnitude as that from washing them. That constitutes a substantial and previously unquantified direct release to the environment. 

"The results also show textile design can strongly influence both release to the air and release due to laundering. That is a crucial message highlighting the importance of sustainable design for the fashion industry.

“Indeed, many of the current issues associated with the environmental impacts of plastic items stem from a lack of holistic thinking at the design stage.”

The issue of microplastics is one of the key environmental issues arising from the more general concern about the legacy of plastics on the planetOcean plastic is perhaps the most compelling illustration of the plastics problem, while new biodegradable polymers and microbeads are being developed to enable a more sustainable future for packaging and industrial use.

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