Why Do We Need to Filter Microplastics from Our Fabrics?

Over the past decade, environmental pollution caused by microscopic polymeric particles has raised global concerns. These particles, called “microplastics”, are increasing the marine pollution on our planet. There is a little awareness of how our marine environments are being harmed by microplastics found in fabric material. You may also find it shocking to know that fabric-based microplastics are one of the biggest sources of toxic synthetic chemicals polluting our sea life.

So, where do these micro-sized particles come from and how do they enter our marine and coastal waters? And, how can we stop this growing spread of microplastics in the oceanic and aquatic bodies? Let’s find out.

What are Microplastics?

The scientific definition of microplastics describes them as synthetic particles that are microscopic in size. Multiple studies on microplastics pollution show that the size of these microscopic synthetic particles varies. The size of a microplastics particle is commonly under 5 mm or 5000 µm. However, there is no lower limit on how small microplastic particles can be in size. And, you can also find multiple particles stacked up together to form a higher microscopic size, which makes it difficult to determine the size of a single microplastic particle.

The definition of microplastics also differs on the basis of the type of textile fabrics. Each textile material is made of a fabric containing millions of fiber strands. These textile fibers are cross-wired together to form a cloth. So, you can find microplastics of various types in different fabric materials. Some textiles have relatively large microplastic particles, while some have infinitesimally microscopic microplastic particles.

The size of microplastic particles.

The type of textile fiber implies the size of the microplastic particle. Fibers of certain shape and size contain very small microplastic particles which have a low diameter compared to their length. But, you may have also noticed that over time, the fiber length of a textile gets reduced. This reduction in fiber size is caused by environmental degradation. Under such conditions, the size of the microplastic particles also degrades. You can observe a microplastic particle losing its size over time and becoming smaller than before.

Perhaps, this is the main reason why environmental regulatory bodies face severe difficulties in fishing out microplastics from oceans. Studies show that the more microscopic these particles become, the harder it is to identify or extract them. Microplastic particles found in fibers have their length four times or bigger than their diameter are easy to define, extract, and study.

How Fabrics Get Contaminated with Microplastics?

There are known and unknown sources of how microplastics enter the aquatic ecosystems. However, fabrics have been observed to be the biggest sources of microplastics in the world. You may not be aware that the t-shirts and pairs of jeans that you wear contain thousands of microplastics. And, these particles are present in your clothes due to the process of production involved.

Every piece of textile in the world goes under a process to become a final product for the end-user consumer. In this process, organic and natural fibers present in the textile materials are exposed to multiple chemicals and equipment. From coloring dyes to dry-cleaning bleaches, several chemical compounds are exposed to your cotton apparel before it hits the store. In the production of your apparel, large machinery is used to optimize time, costs, and resources for high-volume output. The surface of these machines is open to environmental synthetics such as polyamides. This is how any textile or apparel fabric gets contaminated with microplastics.

The microplastic contamination of fabrics

The biggest adulteration of microplastics occurs in the production of synthetic textiles. The process of altering synthetic fabrics for their commercial uses releases several synthetic residues, which in turn, get deposited as microplastic particles on the surface of the textiles. The main synthetic materials causing contamination of microplastics in fabrics include:

  • Polyesters
  • Nylon
  • Acrylics
  • Polyamides
  • Polyacrylonitrile
  • Polypropylenes

These synthetic compounds are the byproducts of textile production processes. Currently, there is no technological advancement that can curb the deposition of these materials during the production phase. There are only a few ways in which you can filter these synthetic compounds from your fabrics, post-production.

The Contribution of Textiles in Global Waste Emissions

There is only a fragment of the global population aware of how microplastics disrupt the natural equilibrium of the underwater flora and fauna. Did you know that every piece of fabric, be it synthetic or organic, dumped on this planet becomes a harmful waste? This waste degrades your environment to a significant extent, the adverse effect of which keeps increasing with time. If people realized how harmful these fabrics are, they would hesitate to discard old clothes let alone buy new apparel.

However, there is near-zero awareness of how these textiles contributed to global waste emissions. According to a 2018 environmental sustainability research study, textiles have become if not the most significant source of microplastic pollution in the world. There are several research studies illustrating the possible adverse effects of microplastics on our ecosystem and our health. Over the past few years, you’ll be shocked to see how our global environmental monitoring reflects the presence of microplastics in aquatic environments. Their presence is not only high but increasing at an alarming rate with every passing year.

There are different ways in which textiles contribute to waste emissions around the world. The land-based way in which microplastics from textiles get dumped as wastes in the environment involves emissions of micro-sized polymeric particles. These emissions are generated from textile production factories. Bleaching and coloring processes emit the highest volumes of polymeric particles, which get saturated in the air and cause pollution. The size of these polymeric pollutants is so microscopic that you may never realize that you’ve been breathing microplastics all your life.

The secondary sources of textile-based microplastic waste emissions include the breakdown of larger-sized polymers due to environmental abrasion. When synthetic or natural textiles start shedding, they emit microplastics. Every time you rub the surfaces of synthetic clothes together, they release microplastic particles. Now, the mechanical stress of these textile fibers happens in several ways. It can take place during the production of the textiles. The process of drying and washing raw fabrics causes mechanical abrasion, which also leads to microplastics emission. One way or another, microplastics enter into the wastewater which is further drained into our aquatic systems such as rivers, seas, and oceans.

Key Facts on Microplastic-driven Textile Waste Emissions

As a source of microplastics, it is hard to fully understand the role of textiles. However, some leading organizations studying the environmental pollution of microplastics around the world have been able to gauge the extent of the damage. The following figures may vary statistically, but they would still indicate the role of textiles in global waste emissions.

  • 0.5 million tonnes of microplastics from textiles get dumped every year around the world
  • While textiles are a marginal contributor, their growing market size poses a major threat to the future of the aquatic environment
  • The global textile market size grow past 100 million metric tonnes in 2016, out of which 65% of textiles produced were synthetic
  • Polyester alone is the largest contributor of polymeric waste emissions from textiles
  • In 2016, 53.4 million tonnes of polyester-based materials such as polyethylene terephthalate were put to waste across the globe

Your wardrobe is likely to have multiple apparel made from synthetic fabrics. But, these synthetic fabrics are nothing short of being sources to harmful microplastics pollution. The lack of adequate measures in the production of these synthetic apparel is the reason why common consumers unknowingly become a part of toxic waste emissions.

The Global Emergency for Microplastics Filtration

Developed and developing nations around the world have started recognizing the need to fix this environmental crisis of microplastics. Several initiatives are being imposed to moderate the use of textiles and optimize the polymeric emissions of production processes. The United Nations has listed the control of microplastic emissions as a part of its Sustainable Development Goals. A goal is being established to help us become more concerned about microplastics shedding on our clothes and textiles. The Sustainable Development Goals on providing clean drinking water and building a responsible consumption of raw materials is directly linked to the filtration of microplastics from textiles.

The issue of microplastics pollution has also been addressed in the UN initiatives towards controlled waste emissions. In the next decade, you would find microplastic pollution as a burning issue in the world. Efforts are being made to improve the consequences of supply chains in the textile industry, particularly by managing the fabric design and production methods. Several considerations are being practiced to tackle this environmental issue by limiting textile production through restrictions imposed by legislative frameworks and top industrial authorities.

As of 2020, the global textile industry already perceives the grave role that it plays towards the health of global citizens. Their products are the contributors to the shedding of microplastics, which is worrying their industry leaders. In a bid to seek solutions, several textile industry giants are exploring filtration technologies to remove these harmful microfibers before they get dumped into the oceans.

The Role of Microfiber Filtration Technology

Microfiber technology is a leading domain that can successfully filter microplastics. Polymeric microplastics found in the ocean usually consist of acrylic polymers and polyester. Microfiber filtration can remove these microplastics from common textile materials by assessing the fiber shape and size. Scientific literature and industrial experiments support the efficacy of microfiber technologies in microplastics removal.

The science behind microfiber filtration technology is simple. It is based on the relation between the properties of a polyester fabric particle and the process of microplastics shedding. You can analyze your fabric samples in laboratories and test their polymeric properties with the use of microfiber filtration techniques. While this is not a standardized solution for microplastics pollution, it is still considered a trustworthy method.

How Does Microfiber Technology Work?

Fine filtration is feasible for textile fibers. It is also used widely in the market for disposable cartridge filters. The microfiber filters use a fine-thread technology that runs a self-cleaning filtration process. This process is developed on a basic element of a microfiber filter called a thread cassette.

Fine threads, ranging in size of 10 microns in diameter, are used by winding them over a base plate which is grooved and rigid. When the water flows through these thread layers and enters the grooves,  the water current gets channeled into specially-designed outlets. Then, the rigid base plate provides support to the thread layers. It further creates a stronghold for a deep-cleaning process, in which all the micro-sized polymeric media gets extracted through the filter cassettes mounted on top of the hollow collector pipes.

Filtration Mechanics

When you spray high-pressure water through these thread layers, they hit the grooved base plate so hard that they get rejected back through the layers again. Eventually, the contaminant microplastic particles are loosened up and get washed off into the filter cassettes. The reject stream ensures no dirt enters the filter cassettes in the back-flush process.

The microfiber filtration mechanics are essentially a combination of depth and surface filtration. When you set the velocity through the fabric media at 1-40 m3/h, the filter cassettes can run an efficient filtration by removing the fine surface particles as well as the deeply contaminated micro-polymers.

Cleaning Process

In the microfiber filtration process, the filtered water is carried out from four collector pipes into the filter outlets. When the dirt builds up in and on the filter cassettes, the differential pressure on these cassettes increases. When this differential pressure touches an adjustable yet pre-set level, your microfiber filtration system’s flush sequence gets triggered. This flush sequence can be triggered at time intervals as well. In the microfiber cleaning process, all flush sequences are controlled either by a manual input device or an electronic control unit.

A Breakthrough Washing Machine for Microfiber Filtration

Microfiber filtration technologies are a costly venture. The technical configurations of microfiber filter cassettes are complex. These methods can be used only at large scale by experienced textile industry leaders. However, that does not dismiss the fact that it would cost people quite a lot of money to get their fabrics micro-filtered. There is an evident need for a commercial and consumer-centric application of microfiber filtration.

And, there is one! The University of New South Wales has recently conducted research that can integrate microfiber filters in your washing machines. According to this technology breakthrough, researchers have developed a new washing machine equipped with special filters that can remove microplastics from general clothes and fabrics.

The study claims that this special microfiber filtration washing machine can reduce 74% of microplastic waste emissions from one consumer household. Now, imagine the impact of such machines on global environmental health when they are used in every household across the world.

The University of New South Wales researchers also suggested that these special microfiber filters in the new washing machines can lower the amount of plastic in wastewater significantly. Their research team estimated that every piece of clothing washed with this machine will reduce over 75% of its microplastic emissions. Usually, fabrics emit around 1900 polymeric fibers with every wash. Based on the calculations, these filters could potentially reduce tonnes of microplastic waste in the world every year.

To test the effectiveness of this experiment, the researchers washed replicated fabric samples of cotton and polyesters. Tests were done with and without filters, and the new washing machine determined that the microfiber filters had reduced the wastewater presence of cotton and polyester fibers to a great extent. In some tests, this reduction was successfully registered at 74%.

Due to this groundbreaking technology feat, researchers from other leading organizations are finding solutions to commercialize microfiber filtration. While plastic bottles and polythene bags are also a threat to our environment, the researchers have discovered more evidence on how microplastics and micro-sized synthetic materials pose a bigger threat to us and our environment. These research efforts are driven by the need to save humans from the microplastics entering our food chain and altering the organisms at cellular levels.

In 2020, the University of Massachusetts helped a group of its scientists partner with Shandong University researchers from China to study the behavioral characteristics of microplastics, particularly with respect to their presence in the soil and their absorption by plants. The group is yet to make a conclusive discovery on evaluating their ability to retain these microplastics from the soil through advanced micro-filtration techniques.

Switching to Sustainable Fabrics

While you can hope for a better outcome through the widespread adoption of microfiber filtration, you can also change your preferences to mitigate the microplastics crisis. Adopting sustainable and eco-friendly fabrics is the best way to curb the pollution caused by microplastics. Eco-friendly fabrics made from bamboo, silk, and organic cotton hold the key to eradicating microplastic pollution in the years to come.

When more people like you grow eco-conscious, they can adopt sustainable fashion trends and use eco-fabrics. These materials are much safer than synthetic fabrics as well as our traditional cotton. Natural resources such as corn, bamboo, hemp, organic cotton, coconut shells, and silk are used to produce sustainable fabrics, which can perfectly replace your existing fabric materials.

Sustainable fabrics

The bamboo fabric holds a great reputation for supporting the health of the environment as well as reaping profits in the textile industry. Bamboo fabrics are soft and stronger due to their fiber structure. The breathable fabric does not catch any microplastic particles during production.  Organic cotton can also be a great alternative. This sustainable fabric is made from genetically-modified cotton, which holds biological benefits of non-chemical production, with its stronger and extra-long fibers. Silk is also a well-known sustainable fabric, which can replace polyester fabrics. The production of silk garments is completely eco-friendly.

Microplastics and Our Future

Beyond environmental pollution, there are wider implications caused by microplastics present in our fabrics. You can eventually get really sick by the microplastics being dumped into water bodies. The accumulation of microplastics and chemicals associated with them in the oceans impacts aquatic life. These polymeric particles enter the bodies of aquatic life and end up in our plates through the variety of seafood we eat.

In the near future, the persistent, toxic, and bioaccumulative contaminants associate with microplastics will alter the organic lifecycle of oceans. They will increase the presence of polychlorinated biphenyls and polybrominated diphenyl ethers in the aquatic environments.  Polyaromatic hydrocarbons associated with microplastics will lead to endocrine-disrupting activities in aquatic organisms. 

When aquatic life gets hampered, your health also gets damaged. From salt to oxygen, oceans are the most critical source of nutrition for us. When the quality of oceans gets hampered by microplastics, it depletes our natural resource for food, energy, and survival. If the rate of microplastic pollution continues to grow rapidly, our fitness responses and survival rates will be reduced drastically. The significant potentiation of microplastics and its associated contaminants will permanently damage marine biodiversity.

By 2030, the global threats of ocean acidification and climate change will be majorly stemmed from microplastic pollution. Overfishing and high waste emissions will make microplastics a prevalent marine pollutant. Hence, reducing the presence of microplastics in our fabrics is a high priority for us.

You must realize that it is impossible to remove the tonnes of microplastics that has already contaminated our oceans. So, the real impetus should be on completely restricting the production of microplastics from textiles and other sources. Governments, scientists, and even you as an individual can reduce these ridiculous levels of microplastics and polymerized waste by permanently changing your lifestyle choices and becoming more sustainable.

Our fragile marine ecosystem is at the cusp of catastrophic degradation, and every step you take towards its safety will secure the future of millions of organisms!