Microplastic pollution from textiles is found in all of the world’s oceans, emissions are continuing and concentrations are increasing. Those are some of the stark conclusions of a KIMO report on how microfibers from synthetic clothing are escaping into our rivers and seas.
The report ‘Microplastics from textiles to the ocean: How clothes cause the release of microplastics into watercourses and the sea’ is an investigation into the impact of the tiny plastic microfiber particles that break away from textiles when washed.
After originally being published in Swedish, the report is now available in English (download at the bottom of this page).
Evelina Norlin, who wrote the report after winning a scholarship from KIMO Sweden in 2020, said:
“Most people have heard of microplastic pollution, but many don’t know the extent of the problem. In fact, even scientists don’t yet fully understand the impact of microplastic pollution on human and animal health.”
In a foreword to the report Deputy Mayor in Gothenburg and Chair of KIMO Sweden Emmyly Bönfors wrote:
“This report shows that the spread of microfibers from the manufacture and use of textiles is a major environmental problem that must be addressed”.
There is growing public awareness about the environmental impact of plastic pollution.
Every year between four and 12 millions of tonnes of plastic waste ends up in the oceans, making it the world’s biggest landfill. Meanwhile, scientists estimate that 14 million tonnes of plastic is already lying at the bottom of our oceans.
Microplastic pollution can be the result of larger pieces of plastic waste breaking down in the sea. However, microplastic pollution from textiles comes from tiny threads of plastic known as microfibers. These break away from clothes and other fabrics is the wash. This happens both during manufacturing and at home in your washing machine.
The amount of microfibers released during production depends on the wastewater treatment system in use at the factory. While at home, it’s the type of material and the type of wash that you do, that influences how many microfibers escape down your drain.
Research shows that 35% of microplastics in the ocean come from textiles.
What can we do?
The report concludes that we need more research, but that there are steps that governments and consumers can already take now.
For example, governments could impose taxes on the most polluting synthetic clothing. They could insist on transparency in clothing manufacturing chains.
However, even without government action, consumers can make a difference. Firstly, by buying clothes made from sustainable, natural materials by responsible companies. Secondly, by reducing the consumption of newly produced clothes. And finally, by changing the way we wash the clothes we already own.
The report suggests only washing synthetic clothes when they really need to be cleaned. It also advises using products designed to reduce microplastic emissions and switching to liquid washing detergent.
“Research shows that using liquid detergent causes less friction in the wash, releasing fewer microfibers. However, while welcome, this kind of change alone is not sufficient. We need other measures too, including better designed clothes and for filters to be compulsory on all new washing machines.”
Download the full report
KIMO International is a network of local governments, working together for healthy seas, cleaner beaches, and thriving coastal communities. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn and sign up for our email updates.