Microfibres: the unseen plastic pollution problem

The science is just emerging. But you don’t need a degree to understand that plastics in our oceans is a problem. Here’s what we are doing — and what you can do — to start tackling the problem of plastic fragments from our clothes ending up in waterways.

What are microfibres?

Microfibres are tiny fragments of fabric (smaller than 5mm) that shed from clothing when you wash it. They are so small that many of them are not caught by washing machines or wastewater treatment filters and so they end up in rivers, lakes and, eventually, the ocean. Microfibres are part of a larger problem with microplastics, or small plastic fragments from any source. New research shows that 70% of microplastics pollutants are microfibres.

What’s the harm?

Microfibres, being plastic, absorb toxins as they pass through treatment plants and, unlike natural fibres, they do not break down. The biggest concern is that marine life are ingesting these tiny, toxin-filled fibres and that the plastics (and toxins) are making their way back into our food cycle. There’s not any research yet that shows sea life or people have been harmed by microfibres, but it’s a no-brainer — plastic pollution is not good for our oceans.

Microscope image of microfibers. Photo: Shreya Sonar
Microscope image of microfibers. Photo: Shreya Sonar

How big is this problem?

Research from 2015 by the University of California shows that a single piece of synthetic clothing can release up to 250,000 microfibres every time it’s washed. Even with wastewater treatment plants filtering out 60–90%, this figure multiplied out means that out and a town of 100,000 people is flushing the equivalent of 15,000 plastic shopping bags into the environment every single day.

You’ve probably seen images of huge floating plastic islands in the ocean. Research now suggests that 80% of plastic pollution is unseen — microplastics. And it’s everywhere. One study took samples from 18 beaches around the world and found microplastics in every sample.

We’ve all been wearing (and washing) polyester fabrics since the 60s. Why is this suddenly in the news?

Microfibres have been been there all along, but until recently, scientists looking at plastic pollution in the ocean were only seeing the big stuff. It wasn’t until a 2011 study by ecologist Mark Browne that this issue began to see the light of day.

Can’t we just ban them?

You may have heard about how microbeads have been banned from cosmetics.That was relatively easy. These plastic exfoliants can be easily replace by organic compounds like sugar, sand or ground seeds.

For the apparel industry, things aren’t quite so simple. The University of California study concluded that elimination of synthetic textiles was “extremely unlikely” and said that mitigation is the way to reduce microfibre pollution.

Image of microfibers on filters used in an experiment. Photo: Shreya Sonar
Image of microfibers on filters used in an experiment. Photo: Shreya Sonar

If we switched everything to natural fibres, wouldn’t that solve the problem?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. No fabric is without its impacts. Conventional cotton production contributes a fifth of the world’s pesticides.

Wool is a fantastic fabric but requires large amounts of land — which are also in demand for food production — and uses a lot of chlorine in its production to make it soft on the skin.

Viscose is natural; it’s made from tree pulp, but increasing demand for this fabric is threatening old growth forests and the last habitats of endangered species.

Polyester has a microfibre problem, but it is also more durable for many uses.

What is Kathmandu doing about it?

The first step is to understand more. Luckily, we’re not alone. Our entire industry needs to face the microfibres problem and we can be more effective in partnership than in our own brand silos.

The Outdoor Industry Association Sustainability Working Group has a vision to create products that do no harm. Microfibres is on their list of priority issues. They have set up a Microfibres Task Force to investigate the problem further and look for industry wide solutions.

SGS has developed a new testing service that will help us understand if some products shed more microfibres than others. Early research shows that high quality fabrics shed fewer fibres, so there may be some choices we can make when choosing fabrics that will make a difference. As an industry, we may also be able to put pressure on textile manufacturers to develop fabrics that shed fewer microfibres.

We need to understand the whole system so that we can find the best ways to intervene. The solution might be to create fabrics that shed less and then mitigate the rest at the source (the home washing machine) and by upgrading wastewater treatment plants.

What can I do about it?

Your washing machine might make a difference. Initial research shows that top loaders shed seven times more fibres than front loaders.

There are also a few home-based solutions making their way onto the market. Guppy Friend is a washing filter bag that traps microfibres so they don’t leave your washing machine.The Cora Ball is a microfibre filter that you throw in with your washing.There are also after-market filters that can be installed by a plumber to stop clothing lint at its source.

Of course, the simplest solution is to wash less. For most garments, a lifecycle analysis shows that the biggest environmental impact comes not from the manufacturing or the disposal, but during the product’s use. That’s because all that washing adds up — with water use and energy use.

Another thing you can do is make your voice heard. Industry-wide change comes fastest when there is consumer pressure. Ask your favorite brands what steps they're taking to address this issue.