The invisible tide: your key takeaways on textile micro-fibre pollution

Among fashion’s most mediatised issues – our oceans flow with tiny plastics. But what exactly is the textile industry’s role? EcoTextile News founder and editor-in-chief, John Mowbray, sifted out the facts.

“It’s not just a plastics issue, it’s a fibre issue.”

Microplastics? Microfibres? John Mowbray prefers: ‘Fibrous micropollutant.’ With plastic production to rise 300% by 2030,[1] and predicted growth of polyester – the textile industry must understand the issue is not just plastics, it’s all fibres.  

“Not just our oceans, fibrous micro plastics also in our air.”

One study found fibrous micro pollutants even in the air. However, the majority were cellulose, rather than synthetic.



Textile industry responsible for 35% of microplastics[1] – or is it?

Urging caution with statistics: plastic packaging missing from this cited analysis. However, because of volume, even though 95% of textile microfibres are trapped by wastewater treatment – lots still enter the environment: 878 tonnes yearly in North America even after treatment.[2]


Industry needs a standard method of measuring fibre loss.

The MicroFibre Consortium with Leeds University is developing testing via equipment used already in textile sector and is looking for partners. Further initiatives at the Hohenstein Institute – using dynamic image analysis, AAFA method and Eurofins.


The worst shedders? Polyesters, but also wool and cotton

Polyesters, notably fleeces and knitted jerseys, shed most, while nylon fabrics are more robust. Yet natural textiles, wool and cotton shed just as much as polyester. Synthetic finishes on natural fibers impact how it breaks down. 85% of cotton breaks down in 35 days, but polyester shows no degradation.[3]


Potential solutions? Cooler washes, filters, and designing fabrics that shed less

The who, what, where of potential solutions includes:

-Leeds University and Procter & Gamble reduced shedding at 20° washes. Detergent suppliers are working on how to reduce fiber loss, -Greater cooperation with detergent suppliers and washing machine makers

-Sound waves to separate microfibres: devices retrofitted onto washing machines at concept stage; steel mesh filters caught 87% of microfibres.

-Microfibre Consortium developing industry tools to minimize fiber loss at design level.

-Polartec’s Power Air insulation, used by Adidas, Burton and Houdini, sheds at least 5x less microfibres than typical synthetic fleece fabrics via a multilayer, continuous yarn fabric construction.


The Red herring:  WHO says micro-fibrous pollutants do not appear to cause harm

At current levels, PET microfibers pass through the body; according to the WHO, but this is just one study. “40 years ago: a structural pollutant was considered safe for people to ingest – it was asbestos,” says Mowbray. “I’m pretty sure we’re not going to get another asbestos: but pumping out so much plastic into the environment and us ending up eating it, can’t be that good.”


[1] International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, 2017

[2] Oceanwise

[3] Cotton INC


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