Ocean Action Hub

6 July 2017 - "Not many people know that lots of our clothes are made of plastic," says Imogen Napper, a PhD student at Plymouth University, "polyester, acrylic."

Ms Napper and Prof Richard Thompson study marine microplastics - fragments and fibres found in the ocean surface, the deep sea and the marine food chain.

And in a recent lab study, they found that polyester and acrylic clothing shed thousands of plastic fibres each time it was washed- sending another source of plastic pollution down the drain and, eventually, into the ocean.

"My friends always make fun of me because they think of marine biology as such a sexy science - it's all turtles, hot countries and bikinis," says Ms Napper.

"But I've been spending hours washing clothes and counting the fibres."

It might not be exotic, but this painstaking "laundry-science" has revealed that an average UK washing load - 6kg (13lb) of fabric - can release:

  • 140,000 fibres from polyester-cotton blend
  • nearly half a million fibres from polyester
  • more than 700,000 fibres from acrylic

Fishing for plastic

That is from every load of synthetic laundry from every UK washing machine. "A lot more fibres were released in the wash than we expected," Ms Napper says.

"They're going down the drain, so they are making their way into the sewage treatment works and maybe, from there, into the marine environment."

Prof Thompson says washing clothes could be a "significant source" of plastic microfibres in the ocean.

"When we sample, we find plastic fibres less than the width of a human hair - in fish, in deep sea sediments, as well as [floating] at the surface."

Changes need to happen "at the design stage", he says; better, harder-wearing and less "disposable" clothing would last longer and be good for the environment.

"The garments [we washed] were similar fleecy garments, and some were shedding fibres much faster than others," Prof Thompson says.

"We need to understand why some garments wear out much more quickly than others, so we can try to minimise unnecessary emissions of plastic."

And scientists now have the backing of possibly the most wholesome of British organisations; the Women's Institute, decided just last month to campaign for what they called "innovative solutions" to the problem of microplastic fibres in the ocean.

Toxic raincoats

Prof Richard Blackburn, head of the sustainable materials research group at the University of Leeds, agrees that textile-makers need to think about what happens "in use", when we wear and wash our clothes.

"People don't consider it," he says. "So, potentially, the pollution could be caused by us - the consumers - rather than the manufacturers."

Prof Blackburn's colleague in Leeds, Philippa Hill, was also drawn to the subject of laundry - by chemical coatings being washed off outdoor clothing.

The waterproofing most high-end, rain-proof jackets are treated with consists of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), which are persistent and potentially toxic pollutants.

Coating textiles and other materials with PFCs makes them resistant to stains, grease, and water. They are also used in some non-stick pans and food packaging.

These molecules sit on top of the (usually nylon) outer fabric like a protective layer of chemical barbed wire - the tip of every barb pushes away water molecules, which are too large to pass through the spaces in between. Air molecules can pass through freely, resulting in a non-sweaty, breathable, waterproof jacket.

CONTINUE READING: http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-40498292

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BBC News
Publication Author: 
Victoria Gill