There is growing global awareness that microplastics are a potentially harmful pollutant in oceans, freshwater, soil and air. While there are many important sources of microplastic pollution, we now know the textile lifecycle of manufacturing, use and disposal is a major emission pathway of microplastics. Microplastics emitted during a textile’s lifecycle are referred to as microfibers or ‘fiber fragments.’ To date, much of the attention has focused on the shedding, washing and disposal of synthetic textiles by consumers.
However, this is only part of the picture and ignores microfiber leakage during the manufacturing and processing of these materials. We estimate that pre-consumer textile manufacturing releases 0.12 million metric tons (MT) per year of synthetic microfibers into the environment – a similar order of magnitude to that of the consumer use phase (laundering). That would mean for every ~500 t-shirts manufactured; one is lost as microfiber pollution.
While we don’t yet know how harmful microfibers are, we know enough to take action now to reduce the flows of these materials into natural systems like rivers and oceans. The elimination of pre-consumer microfiber pollution will require changes along all stages of the textile supply chain. These changes include:
- Better understanding the relative emissions of microfibers at each manufacturing step (from fiber to yarn to fabric to garment).
- Developing microfiber control technologies and codifying best practices.
- Scaling these solutions to Tier 1, 2 and 3 suppliers via a combination of regulatory and brand or retailer-led action.
- Continuing to raise industry, government and consumer awareness of the topic.
Taken together, we estimate these actions could address up to 90% of pre-consumer microfiber emissions.
Microplastics are fragments of plastic which are less than 5 mm in diameter. As a pollutant with potentially harmful effects, they are attracting increasing attention from scientific circles, industry, media and consumers. Their effects on organisms, the marine environment and humans are still being understood, but early research has already identified microplastics in seafood, tap water and bottled water. One study estimates humans ingest up to “one credit card per week” of plastic via consumption and inhalation (WWF, 2019).
Microplastics released into the environment can be categorized as either primary or secondary. Primary microplastics are emitted directly as small plastic particles (e.g., microbeads in facial scrub); whereas secondary microplastics come from the degradation of larger “macro” plastics. The largest sources of primary microplastics are laundering synthetic textiles (35% of annual emission into oceans), abrasion of tires while driving (28%), city dust (24%) and road markings (7%) (IUCN, 2017).
As laundering synthetic clothing is the largest primary microplastics emission pathway, the textiles industry is under increasing pressure to find solutions to avoid shedding of plastic fibers during wash and dry cycles. Early work has investigated adding filters to laundry units and changing the construction of clothing to reduce shedding of these microfibers (Mitrano & Wohlleben, 2020).
However, the textiles industry has yet to comprehensively address emissions of microfibers during manufacturing (termed “pre-consumer”). With synthetic textile production and consumption expected to continue growing (IHS, 2019), this issue will only continue to get larger if unaddressed. Manufacturers today are largely unaware of the issue and rarely test for microfibers in waste streams – meaning there could be substantial emissions across processing steps. In this White Paper, we’ll examine this challenge of sources and scale of pre-consumer microfiber emissions from textile manufacturing, and options for resolving the issue.