Textile fibers and microplastics

The invisible pollution of seas and oceans
Sustainability Glossary - MU Sustainable Innovation

When we think of ocean pollution from waste, the first image that comes to the mind is that of plastic waste floating in the water, plastic bags, and abandoned fishing nets that trap fish and other marine animals.


Another danger, invisible and impossible to capture with shocking images are micro-plastics, that can be found in the seas and oceans and reach up to our dishes. Studies carried out by consumer associations - in Italy Altro Consumo- show that Microplastics are found in about 40% of samples of frozen mussels and prawns sold by supermarkets, other studies found that microplastics can also be found in the digestive organs of Mediterranean fish. 


The problem of microplastics directly calls into question fashion, fabrics, particularly those in synthetic fibers, and the way we wash our clothes.


But what are microplastics?

Conventionally, plastic waste is divided into macroplastics with a size greater than> 200 mm; mesoplastic between 4.7 and 200 mm; medium-sized microplastics between 0.33 mm and 4.7 mm, a size that makes them practically invisible to the naked eye.


A large number of studies on the topic have established, beyond doubt, that the problem exists, a 2016 survey by Legambiente, for example, has demonstrated the presence of microplastics also in Italian lakes.

However, the actual size of the impact on the environment and human health and the role that textiles and fashion have in generating the problem remains controversial.

One of the most influential studies that defined textiles as the primary source of the presence of microplastics in the waters of lakes, seas, and oceans (IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature, 2017) has raised many methodological criticisms and the contestation that severe errors in the parameters flawed the estimates of the very high releases of microplastics from textile products.


Methodologically sound studies that demonstrate the negative impact of microplastics on the health of aquatic organisms and humans have not yet been published. Instead, it is proven that microplastics can absorb persistent organic pollutants such as phthalates, PCBs, organochlorines, and heavy metals, toxic, carcinogenic, or mutagenic substances which, linked to microplastics, can go up the food chain with adverse effects on human health.


How can you deal with this problem that has a high impact on the media and public opinion?

The hypothesis of a "no plastic" world is unrealistic. Synthetic fibers account for  2/3 of the total fibers used in textiles. A cut in their use is technically impossible. There are no alternative fibers, and, in any case, the replacement of the synthetic fibers would still cause more significant environmental damage because of the need for arable or pasture land that it would require, subtracting them from the production of food.


More practical in the short-medium term is the hypothesis of improvement of washing filtration systems, both domestic and industrial, to avoid the release of textile-derived microplastics. In the longer term, research into biodegradable synthetic fibers, that is already generating marketable solutions, offers a promising prospect.


Right now, as consumers, we can adopt a simple caution: use, when washing in the washing machine, bags already available on the market, made with yarns that do not release microplastics into which to place synthetic fiber garments.