Microplastics and the fashion sector: possible solutions.
What are microplastics?
Microplastics are small plastic particles usually smaller than a millimeter.
Due to the very high industrial production of plastic, it has been estimated that approximately eight million tons of plastic are dumped into our oceans every year.
These particles are ingested by marine fauna, thus changing the entire food chain.
Recent studies by Ispra (Istituto Superiore per la Protezione e la Ricerca Ambientale) have shown that about 15-20% of marine species that end up on our tables contain microplastics.
Similarly, a more or less uniform contamination of drinking water was found in every part of the globe.
Microplastics are divided into primary and secondary
Primary microplastics are released into the environment already in small sizes and represent between 15% and 31% of the microplastics present in the ocean; are mainly issued by:
-Synthetic garments washing (35%)
– Tire abrasion while driving (28%)
– Body care products such as scrubs and toothpastes (2%)
The data varies according to the study; in any case, washing synthetic garments and abrasion of tires remain among the main sources.
Secondary microplastics, on the other hand, are caused by the degradation of larger plastic pieces (such as bottles and bags) that are dispersed into the environment. These represent between 61% and 81% of the microplastics in the ocean.
Microplastics in clothes
One of the main sources of primary microplastics is washing synthetic garments in the washing machine. In fact, they are composed of small plastic filaments that are dispersed during washing.
The more we wash, the more microplastics we throw into the sea and into the environment. We can lose filaments even without washing clothes, for example by walking.
Data and numbers on the release of microplastics still have uncertainties and a standardization of methods is needed.
Two considerations must also be made on non-synthetic fabrics.
As Eunomia explains, viscose, a fiber produced with chemically treated natural materials, is in a “gray zone”. Since remains of viscose have been found in the environment, studies are needed to confirm biodegradability.
Similarly, a 100% natural fabric can originate from biodegradable material, but the processing of the material such as dyeing, finishing etc. may have reduced or eliminated the biodegradability characteristic. Natural fabric or viscose therefore do not give a guarantee of biodegradability. There are also bioplastics that are not biodegradable, such as PLA derived from corn.
A sector that contributes to a large extent to the release of microplastics into the environment is the fashion sector.
In fact, washing synthetic garments in the washing machine is one of the main sources of release of microplastics. It has been estimated that 35% of primary microplastics come from releases during washing of synthetic fiber garments.
Thanks to their small size, they are able to pass the treatment plants and end up directly in the sea.
The clothes are mainly produced in synthetic fibers, which represent about 60% of all the fibers consumed every year by the clothing industry (almost 70 million tons).
Many of these clothes are used only once and end up in landfills, as recycling practices are little used.
The role of regulations
The problem of the institutions is that they have to face a rather large and essential market for our society; there are cases where it is difficult to find a substitute for plastic that has all its properties.
For politics it is complex to find a balance between production convenience for the company and the virtuosity of converting to a more sustainable solution; this unfortunately slows down and complicates institutional actions.
However, Europe is working to tackle the problem: an example is that of the European directive for the elimination of particularly polluting disposable plastic products such as cotton buds from 2020.
Regulatory interventions are an excellent starting point and are necessary. Unfortunately, however, the problem of plastic is at such an advanced stage that it makes the institutional path too slow. We cannot therefore rely only on institutions: we need greater awareness of the private citizen but also of the investor and worker citizen. The problem is real and affects us all: every choice in our life has an impact, from purchases to behavior in the workplace.
The environmental impact of alternative materials
We asked Giulio Magni of One Ocean Foundation for his opinion on alternative materials to plastic. If we think for example of packaging, the most common alternatives are bioplastics and glass, which however are large energy-consuming (ie they require more energy than plastic to be produced); if we think of alternative fabrics to synthetic ones, we know for example that cotton requires enormous quantities of water and pesticides.
However, plastic has a big problem that risks nullifying the advantages: it is not properly recycled. In fact, 40% of the plastic is not recycled but ends up in waste-to-energy plants or landfills. If we add to this figure that 28% of waste is not disposed of correctly and ends up in illegal landfills or dispersed in nature, polluting rivers and seas, we realize how much the qualities of plastic (low energy consumption during production and excellent durability ) are lost due to the difficulty of re-entering the waste into the production circuit. Unfortunately, it is difficult to give an absolute answer, but starting from the observation of the only partial effectiveness of recycling and the dangerousness of plastic if dispersed in the environment, it is essential to promote alternative materials.
Let’s now analyze the possible solutions that can be adopted in order to reduce the release of microplastics into the environment.
We must inform ourselves not only about the problem we face but also about the risks of potential solutions, in order to adopt the most effective.
A case in point of an ineffective solution is that of McDonald’s “sustainable” straws: the fast food giant has in fact eliminated plastic straws but replaced them with non-recyclable paper straws due to their small size. Fortunately, customers realized that the straws were thrown in the unsorted bin and now the company is looking for a truly sustainable alternative.
The solution in the fashion sector:
What can brands do?
There are some parameters that impact the release of microplastics and which should be considered during the design phase, such as:
-The type of fiber: the twisted continuous one has a lower release than the volumized continuous one, and even less than the discontinuous one (Carney Almroth, Quantifying shedding of synthetic fibers from textiles; a source of microplastics released into the environment, 2017).
-The number and type of seams: since a torn fabric produces more microplastics than an intact one, minimizing the number of seams and using methods such as heat sealing instead of traditional stitching reduce the risk of release.
Other important actions are:
-Check with the suppliers the management system of the pellets used to create the fabric, which probably have an even greater impact on the microplastics released during washing.
– Provide information to consumers on how to minimize release during washing.
-Brands can also test products at the Centro Tessile Cotoniero.
What can consumers do?
-Choose synthetic garments well. We prefer recycled garments so as not to produce new plastic and if possible we ask the brand if the fiber is continuous or staple and if the seams have been heat-sealed.
-Wash the synthetic garments in the Guppy Bag, which retains some of the microplastics. The Guppy Bag is made of nylon, yet it releases far fewer microplastics than an average garment, demonstrating that the type of processing greatly affects the release.
– Beware of torn synthetic garments, which release more microplastics.
-Wash the garments only if strictly necessary, use a little detergent and possibly bio, choose a low temperature cycle (Napper, Release of synthetic microplastic plastic fibers from domestic washing machines: Effects of fabric type and washing conditions, 2016. showed some variability).
The main efforts must start from the producer, who must be pushed to produce less, but with quality fabrics and related certifications.
At the same time, consumers must demand quality products, buy less and better, adopt the practices listed above in order to minimize the release of microplastics into the environment.
Cikis helps fashion companies to respond to market demands, supporting them in the implementation of a correct sustainability strategy.
In our sustainability analysis, the garments are also analyzed in relation to the risk of microplastic release.
Dopo esperienze di lavoro in Mango, dove ho sperimentato in prima persona la complessità del sistema produttivo del Fast Fashion, e in una tech Company americana, mi sono dedicata allo studio delle criticità ambientali e sociali della filiera di produzione delle aziende di moda e di come la tecnologia potesse supportarle nello sviluppo sostenibile.