One of the most significant threats to the environment is microfibres, which are tiny plastic fibres that shed from clothing made out of synthetic materials when manufactured, worn, and washed. They are the most prevalent microplastics (plastic pieces less than 5 mm in diameter) found in the environment and are all around us. Microfibres can harm our health and aquatic life, persist in the environment, and contribute to the ongoing pollution of our waterways and oceans. We need to tackle this cycle of pollution, but how?
Microfibre catchers in Laundry Machines
One way to prevent microfibres from entering water systems is to install microfibre catchers in washing machines. Currently, nearly 70% of all clothing is made of plastic, and since many people wash their clothes in washing machines, microfibre catchers, or filters, is an effective solution. A study led by the University of Toronto and the nonprofit Georgian Bay Forever concluded that after 10% of households in Parry Sound, Ontario attached a special microfibre-catching filter to their home washing machines, there was a 41% reduction of microfibre presence in the sewage from the town’s wastewater treatment plant. This result shows the effectiveness of microfibre catchers. Those who want to be a part of the solution can purchase their own separate microfibre filter that can be installed on any washing machine or a washing bag that filters microfibres while not shedding any fibres itself.
Coating for Synthetic Fabrics
When synthetic fabric clothes are washed in a machine, the friction produced during cleaning cycles causes small tears that result in the shedding of microfibres. To combat this issue, researchers from the University of Toronto have developed a solution that reduces the friction of nylon clothing through the combination and application of a two-layer coating made of polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) brushes and a molecular primer. This solution significantly reduces the microfibre shedding of nylon clothing after repeated laundering, resulting in a reduction of over 90% after nine washes. The researchers have expanded their work to find solutions for polyester and synthetic fabric blends as well.
Designers and brands have a critical role to play in tackling microfibres by transitioning away from using them. Fortunately, there are various innovative alternatives to synthetic plastic materials that can be utilized in fashion. For instance, Natural Fibre Welding, Squitex and Werewool are some of the new materials that can be used as alternatives. Natural Fibre Welding technology transforms natural materials into high-performing fibres that can be used in apparel and accessories. Squitex fibres are eco-friendly, self-healing, and thermally responsive materials, and Werewool offers performance textiles that are biodegradable. By embracing innovative non-synthetic materials and implementing circular fashion practices, designers and brands can play a vital role in reducing the impact of microplastic pollution in fashion.
Say No to Plastic Textiles
Due to the prevalence of fast fashion and the widespread use of cheap plastic textiles, it may not be realistic to completely eliminate them from the fashion industry. However, as consumers, we can still make a difference by being conscious of the clothing we choose to purchase and by demanding the use of sustainable, natural fibres. By doing so, we can encourage designers and brands to adopt more environmentally friendly practices. Additionally, we can also work to promote regulations that help to reduce the amount of microfibers released into our environment.
In Canada, there is already support for addressing plastic waste through the Zero Plastic Waste strategy adopted in 2018. So far, Canada has banned the sale, import and manufacturing of microbeads in toiletries, natural health products and non-prescription drugs, and banned the manufacturing, import, sale and eventually export of 6 categories of single-use plastic items. Progress is expected to continue, including regulation involving microfibres in Canada. Following in the footsteps of France, Ontario introduced a bill that requires filters in all new laundry machines in the province of Ontario. The bill has yet to go to the second reading stage, and support can be provided by writing a letter to a Member of Provincial Parliament to ask them to get this Bill passed.
The issue of synthetic microfiber pollution is complex and there needs to be a combined effort from governments, washing machine manufacturers, fashion brands, environmental organizations and consumers to take actions that mitigate microfibre pollution. We all have a role in tackling microfibres!