Scion Microplastics Waterway

Figure 1 Some of the microplastics which were found in Auckland waterways. Credit: Scion

Scion’s study of microparticles in waterways in the Auckland region identified 87% of microparticles were fibres.[1] Our clothing is a major source of microplastic pollution and we need effective measures to prevent leakage at source. The leakage occurs when we wear and wash synthetic clothing, such as anything made from polyester, acrylic or nylon, as tiny synthetic microfibres shed from the clothing and enter the waterways when the dirty water is flushed out of the machine. This is worse for more water-intense cycles such as delicate wash.[2]

Possible solutions to prevent textiles being a source of microplastics include:

  • Refuse synthetic textiles and embellishments: The most effective prevention is to not use them in the first place. Replacing synthetic materials such as polyester, nylon and acrylic with natural alternatives such as wool, cotton and linen will not always be a viable option, but when it is this solution prevents microfibres entering the environment. Avoiding plastic embellishments such as sequin and glitter will also reduce leakage.
  • Engineer and manufacture better performing textiles: Where synthetic textiles are needed, following good practice design principles and treatment methods that reduce the amount of fibre shedding as much as possible should be taken. This includes using longer fibre length and twist, lower yarn count, higher density, and reduced abrasion against other fibres, as well as investigating finishing treatments that prevent shedding.[3] By preventing the fibres from shedding in the first place, these approaches are much more effective than capturing once in water. A self-certification process to govern the implementation of a maximum threshold for fibre release was determined to be a cost-effective approach to reducing textile-sourced microplastics.
  • Stopping fibres from leaving the washing machine: In the instances where fabric does shed microfibres, remediation measures need to be taken to capture the fibres from water and prevent them entering the marine environment. There are washing bags and filters that can be applied at home or in industrial settings to catch microplastic fibres before they enter wastewater. Several companies are now selling these filters and these can drastically reduce the amount entering the waterways, though none stop 100% of fibres. This approach relies on individuals taking measures to implement filters on their washing machines and dispose of the fibres appropriately. One way to ensure these measures are more widespread is to start incorporating filters into washing machines in the manufacturing stage, see Macpac, Planet Care and Ocean Clean Wash. Such a move has been announced by a Turkish manufacturer of washing machines.

Improve filtering processes at wastewater treatment plants: Fibres that leave the washing machine end up in the wastewater treatment plant. Without appropriate filtering infrastructure these fibres will enter waterways as part of the effluent. Where filtering is able to capture some or all of the fibres, these will become part of the solid waste. Current wastewater treatments are not effective at filtering out microplastics and depending on the age of the system, may require upgrades before appropriate filtering infrastructure can be added to the system.

References

[1] Kate Parker, “Turning the Tide on Plastic Microparticles”, 2019

[2] Kelly et al., “Importance of Water-Volume on the Release of Microplastic Fibers from Laundry,”

[3] De Falco et al., “Pectin Based Finishing to Mitigate the Impact of Microplastics Released by Polyamide Fabrics,” Carbohydrate Polymers 198 (2018)

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