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You have probably heard of microplastic or microfibers but did you know where they come from or how dangerous they can be? Are you curious about your roll in microfiber pollution? If so, please read this blog post that talks about the hazards of pollution from the fashion industry.

 

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are tiny fragments of plastic less than 5mm in size. These microplastics are either produced, such as microbeads for facial cleaners, or they are created from the degradation of bigger plastic items. A subgroup of microplastics, known as synthetic microfibers, is also now beginning to gain some attention.

A sustainable future: How far behind is the textile and fashion industry?

(Image from Coraball.com) Here you can see the path of pollution for some fibers after they are washed, the fibers break off and are released into the environment where they can be taken up by animals and then humans.

 

What Are Microfibers?

There are two main types of fibers, synthetic (man-made) or natural fibers such as cotton and wool. Natural fibers degrade naturally into the environment so they don’t pose the equal threat that synthetic fibers do. Synthetic fibers are made from 100% PET or plastic, they may also come in blends with other fibers. When being produced, transported, purchased, used and discarded, these textiles are releasing these synthetic microfibers. Synthetic fibers like polyester and nylon are sought after for their wearable characteristics. Synthetics are often lightweight but often keeps the wearer warm, they resist wrinkling and odor and also are water repelling. The use of synthetic textiles has been steadily increasing. As illustrated below, polyester dominated the global consumption share of fibers in 2016 and continues to do so.

A sustainable future: How far behind is the textile and fashion industry?

Global consumption share of fibers in 2016 (Plastics Insight, 2019)

 

Why Are Microfibers Bad?

Microfibers like any microplastic, or plastic for that matter is made from very strong polymers. This makes it very hard for the item to break down and eventually ends up taking decades to decompose. Due to this, microplastics are very hard to get rid of once they are in the environment. Organisms within the environment are then exposed to these microfibers. As larger animals consume smaller ones, it is possible for these microparticles to bioaccumulate. Meaning that larger prey will ingest larger numbers of these microplastics. This can have many negative effects such as loss of appetite, transfer of microplastics to young and ultimately premature death for some species such as fish and birds. There are also studies beginning to emerge that highlight the human inhalation of microfibers. As this is a newer area of research, many studies are preliminary and highlight a need for standardized testing methods to research these effects further.

 

Where Do These Microfibers End Up?

A sustainable future: How far behind is the textile and fashion industry?

(photo by Ensia.com © 2018 Kosuth et al, from PLoS ONE, licensed under CC BY 4.0.) This picture shows the places some fibers have been found

As the use of these synthetics increases there are more individual fibers being released. Larger textiles can be degraded to produce microfiber pollution but they are also being released mostly by consumers. Most of us own something made from synthetic textiles whether its a clothing item or a carpet, sofa, or curtain, when we agitate these items fibers release into the air. These fibers then eventually find their way into water systems through atmospheric fallout, or when particles in the atmosphere settle. However, these fibers are also being released into waterways when we wash these synthetic items. During a wash cycle the item is agitated and releases fibers into the water. Washing machines and wastewater treatment plants are not yet designed to filter out these fibers therefore once released, these fibers then continue to persist in the environment. There have been fibers found in the treated water of wastewater treatment plants, also in soil, freshwater systems and the ocean, as well as glaciers and deep sea trenches.

 

What Can We Do?

As consumers, our direct choices have massive impacts. There are many things we can do at home to make sure we are minimizing our microfiber pollution.

  • Microfiber filters for the washing machine – some retailers sell microfiber filters that you can throw into your washing machine to catch these fibers before they are released into the wastewater
  • Air dry your synthetics to ensure less agitation of the garment
  • Recycle your used or unwanted textiles to reduce the amount being thrown away
  • Try to purchase natural fibers as often as possible
  • Purchase second hand items to lessen synthetic textile production
  • Support and purchase locally produced garments

 

What Can Green Bike Tours Do?

A sustainable future: How far behind is the textile and fashion industry?

Green Bike Tours offers an amazing sustainable fashion walking tour which takes you to two consignment shops here in Copenhagen. During the tour we will share our knowledge regarding fashion and textile pollution. At the stores you learn first-hand from the staff how these shops are trying to reduce textile waste and promote the reuse of preloved items. You get some time to walk around the shops and perhaps pick something preowned as well. This tour is great for anyone who loves fashion but understands how polluting the textile industry can be and is trying to become more sustainable. Copenhagen has many second hand shops, and the ones included in the tour are very well known. Check out our sustainable fashion tour right here: https://www.greenbiketours.org/sustainable-fashion-walking-tour/

You can read other blogposts here about sustainable fashion stores in Copenhagen, Malmø and Berlin : https://greenbiketours.org/green-inspiration/ 

Written by Green guide, Tiffany Ramos