Wearing clothes can release more microfibres than washing them, study finds

Wearing clothes can release greater quantities of microfibres to the environment than washing them, a study has found.

Scientists compared four different items of polyester clothing and how many fibres were released when they were being worn and washed.

Up to 4,000 fibres per gram of fabric could be released during a conventional wash, while up to 400 fibres per gram of fabric could be shed by items of clothing during just 20 minutes of normal activity.

These results indicate that one person could release almost 300 million polyester microfibres per year by washing their clothes, and more than 900 million to the air by wearing them.

The research was conducted by scientists from the Institute for Polymers, Composites and Biomaterials of the National Research Council of Italy (IPCB-CNR) and the University of Plymouth.

Dr Francesca De Falco, research fellow at IPCB-CNR, said: “Recently, more evidence has been accumulating on the presence of synthetic microfibres not only in aquatic environments, but also in atmospheric ones.

“That is why we decided to design this set of experiments to study microfibre release by garments to both media.

“This is a type of pollution that should be mainly fought at its source, the fabric itself, but we investigated the influence of different textile parameters on the release.

“Results have shown that textiles with a very compact structure like woven, with yarns highly twisted and composed of continuous filaments, can release less microfibres to both air and water.”

The study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, compared four different items of clothing in size large.

These were a 100% green polyester blouse, a 100% blue polyester t-shirt, a 100% polyester dress and a 50% polyester and 50% cotton pink sweatshirt.

They were washed at 40C and any released fibres were collected.

Between 700 and 4,000 individual fibres were released per gram of fabric during the single wash.

Researchers also created a dedicated clean lab, in which volunteers separately wore a duplicate of each of the four garments.

They performed a sequence of movements simulating a mix of real life activities.

Any fibres released by the garments were then collected, with up to 400 per gram of fabric counted in just 20 minutes.

The pink sweatshirt made from both polyester and cotton released the most fibres during both washing and wearing.

Professor Richard Thompson OBE, Head of the University of Plymouth’s International Marine Litter Research Unit, said: “The key story here is that the emission of fibres while wearing clothes is likely of a similar order of magnitude as that from washing them.

“That constitutes a substantial and previously unquantified direct release to the environment.

“The results also show textile design can strongly influence both release to the air and release due to laundering; that is a crucial message highlighting the importance of sustainable design for the fashion industry.

“Indeed many of the current issues associated with the environmental impacts of plastic items stem from a lack of holistic thinking at the design stage.”

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