Microfiber pollution in environment and its impact

Excerpt: Exploitation is manifested in different forms and ways such as maximum utilization of chemicals fertilizers and pesticides, deforestation, nuclear and atomic experiments, industrial wastes

ONE of the crucial problems the world is facing today is pollution. This problem has affected the land, water and space of this planet. The existence of living creature such as human beings, animals and plants are in danger. Every year it is observed that the International Environmental Day explicitly indicates the sensitiveness of this issue [1].

Nature believes in co-existence of all living things in the ecosystem to sustain better and healthier world so long as it is not disturbed. The violent exploitation of land, water and space has created a havoc that this planet is no longer a better place to live in. Such exploitation is manifested in different forms and ways such as maximum utilization of chemicals fertilizers and pesticides, deforestation, nuclear and atomic experiments, industrial wastes and smokes and petro-chemical oil refineries, which not only spoil the earth but the lives of human beings, animals and plants. The acid rain or global warming is a great threat to the ecosystem today [1].

Pollution is a global issue in the form of dust, smoke from industries, nuclear and atomic experiments. As research and analysis are advancing, different new sources of pollution are found. A very alarming and sensitive issue is the pollution from plastic products and eventually from micro fibre synthetic products from textile industries [1].

Pollution is an alarming issue that is too broad to be covered completely as such but needs to be divided into diverse subtopics according to its causes. This review article focuses on studying ocean water pollution caused by microfibre released from synthetic clothes in the process of laundering [1].

The cause of pollution of the oceans/seas is not well known. Every year the quality of the water is deteriorating. It has been shown that the small tiny particles the size of which is smaller than that of human hair are found in abundance in ocean and sea water. It has been so important concern to know the sources of its release. Laundry companies seem to be the major sources of microfibre pollution in the oceans. Microfibre pollution is a very hot topic in the modern world as it not only is polluting the oceans but also is affecting the underwater creatures and the predators as well [1].

Millions of metric tons of plastic are produced and discarded annually, much of which ends up accumulating in the marine environment [2]. A new report commissioned by the UK government says levels of plastic pollution in the ocean are projected to treble between 2015 and 2025. “Plastic does not decompose, instead breaking down into ever smaller pieces,” the report says. “The full effects are not understood, but there is growing evidence of plastic harming sea creatures and restricting their movement, as well as polluting beaches. The report informs that companies around the globe are currently producing 300 million tonnes of plastic per year and that 70% of all the litter in the world's seas and oceans is plastic. It mentions that Henderson Island, a UK dependency, was recently found to have the highest density of manmade debris (99.8% of which was plastic) recorded anywhere in the world [3].

Plastic pollution of the marine environment has been reported for decades, a key component of this pollution, micro plastic describes fragments of plastic that are smaller than that of 5mm. sources of micro plastic to the environment includes microbeads used in personal care products, pre–production pellets used as precursors to manufacture plastic products, fibres derived from clothes and fabrics made with synthetic materials(such as polyester and acrylics) or fishing lines, fragments from the photo degradation of larger plastic items and plastic foam particles from polystyrene products or cigarette filters [4].

The production of polyester has been increasing every year since 1980. Most consumed natural garment fabrics, cotton and wool, are now replaced by the synthetic fabrics. Less expensive, shiny, easily washable synthetic garments have made people's lives easier in the modern hectic society. The use of polyester garments has increased from 5 million tons in 1980 to 50 millions tons in 2017, which is ten times more. The consumption of manmade fiber is higher than that of natural fibers. Most of the countries are consuming two times more synthetic fibers than the cotton and wool. The consumption of Man Made Fiber products is responsible for increasing the microfibre pollution [1].

Sources of microfibre contamination

The used PET bottles are recycled to make the polyester and other synthetic fabrics and turned into the various stylish garments. So textile industry is one of the main sources of micro fibre From outerwear to inner wear like fleece jacket, yoga pants, shorts, underwear made from synthetic fabric are the major sources of microfibre.

In the process of manufacturing various synthetic garments tiny particles are dispersed in abundance and reach into the ocean through drainage and other water channels. Daily human activities like washing these synthetic clothes contribute to the release of microfibre in abundance [1].

  • Microbeads used in personal care products [4].
  • Micro fibers found in our oceans can originate from a wide variety of textiles (such as nylon, polyester, rayon, acrylic or spandex)—everything from running shorts to yoga pants to fleece jackets and more [5].
  • Apparel products are not the only source of microplastic particles that are entering the oceans. Other industries are also contributing to this problem, as are things like fishing nets, bottle caps, packaging and plastics bags that break down in the ocean [5].
  • Washing machines represent an integral step in the path to pollution [5].
  • While the majority of microfibre research and public discussion to date has focused on shedding in the wash, there is scant information about other potential sources during the production cycle, during product use, or at the end-of-life. Substantial uncertainty also exists about the sources and amounts of fiber loss from the non-apparel textile sectors, such as carpet manufacturing, home goods, hospitality, and health care [6].
  • Microscopic plastic fragments and fibers are widespread in the oceans and have accumulated in the pelagic zone and sedimentary habitats. At first, the discovered fragments appeared to have resulted from degradation of larger marine litter items [7].

Quantitative extract of microfibre contamination [7,1]

By 2025, there will be 1 ton of plastic for every 3 tons of fish in the oceans [1], and by 2050 the weight of plastic will overtake that of fish. The cause of this future scenario partly lies in our clothing and the Micro fibers it sheds during washing. Without intervention the amount of fibers that is released via the sewer into our waterways will increase significantly in the near future: 30% of the world population is already doing the laundry with a washing machine. The remaining 70% will buy one as soon as they have the chance.

One of the first studies on microfibre release by Browne in 2011 showed that a single garment might produce >1,900 fibers per wash3. A study by Napper & Thompson (2016) examined the release of fibers from polyester, polyester-cotton blend and acrylic fabrics and found high amounts, e.g. 728,789 fibers from acrylic clothing for every 6 kilos of laundry [7]. A Californian study found 9 kg -110 kg of Micro fibers being discharged in waste water treatment plants effluent daily.

Plastic Soup Foundation published research, as the dissemination partner of the EU-funded Life+ Project MERMAIDS, showing that significantly more fibers are released in washing machine effluent. Synthetic clothing releases a huge quantity of fibers when it is machine washed, although this depends largely upon the washing conditions and the material. One single polyester fleece jacket releases almost one million fibers per washing. The study also found that a moderate load of laundry releases 20 million fibers of micro plastic.

Micro fibers are one of the biggest sources of primary microplastics that are directly released into the environment in the form of small particulates. Close to two-thirds (63.1%) of the on average 3.2 million tons per year that is released as primary microplastics into the environment is due to the laundry of synthetic textiles (34.8%), and to the erosion of tires while driving (28.3%)10. Napper & Thompson6 also consider washing of synthetic materials as an important source of microplastics into the environment.

Results from a study by Pirc et al. (2016) performed at the University of Ljubljana (Slovenia), confirm that domestic washing of textiles and garments is a constant and widespread source of plastic microfibre emissions into the environment [11]. Wastewater treatment plants are unable to effectively prevent them from entering our rivers, seas and oceans.

It is found that single synthetic fleece jacket releases 250,000 Micro fibers when washed. The old jackets release more Micro fibers than that of new jacket due to the weakening of the fibers. The Micro fibers are released 5 times more when the fleece jacket is washed in the top load washing machine than in the front load machine. The aging of the fleece jackets acts accordingly in the washing machine. Again garments of higher quality and durability shed less in the wash than low quality synthetic products. Higher percentage of fibers is found to be inside the fish and shellfish. It's already estimated that there are 1.4 million trillion Micro fibers in the ocean, which is about 200 million Micro fibers for every person on the planet. Most of the washing machines do not have filters that trap lint so the fibers are passed easily through the washing machine to the ocean via wastewater treatment plant. Synthetic Micro fibers are harmful as they are likely to poison the food chain.

Micro fibers have a large impact on the environment. Primarily, plastic is manufactured to be both lightweight and durable. However, the same qualities that make it so favourable, make it a huge threat to the environment. The characteristic of longevity means that any plastic in the environment will be present for decades, even centuries. In fact, those trillions of Micro fibers circulating in the Great Lakes will still be present over 1000 years from now [8].

According to a report by IUCN, it is calculated that 35 per cent of the micro plastic pollution comes from washing synthetics textiles, with Europe and Central Asia alone dumping the equivalent of 54 plastic bags worth of micro plastics per person weekly into the oceans [9].

Environmental effects and consequences of synthetic micro fiber release [7]

Microplastics in the food web

There are evidences of microplastics ingestion by the pacific Krill (Euphasea Pacifica), freshwater zooplankton (Daphnia magna) and other species such as sea cucumbers, shore crabs, mussels and lugworms. Several observed biological effects of microplastic exposure are gathered by the “Microplastic Litter in the Dutch Marine Environment” report.

Persistent Organic Pollutants

Once in the oceans, microplastics attract and absorb persistent organic pollutants (POPs) from the environment, which, in turn, make their way into the marine food web. It is in these dissolved POPs that toxic outcomes arise. The more hydrophobic a chemical is, the greater its affinity for microplastics. In this sense, microplastics have a potential impact on human health by the consumption of contaminated organisms.

Potential effect on human health

Microplastic transfer from prey to predator through the food chain has been clearly demonstrated. Preliminary studies concluded that “airborne nanoplastics (up to 240 nm) can enter the human blood stream and can cross the human placenta, possibly exposing the developing fetus to these particles. Plastic particles from the nm to the low μm range are likely to be absorbed by human tissue should exposure to nano- and microplastics arise.

Microplastic in seafood

Microplastics presence has been demonstrated in different types of seafood like mussels, oysters, shrimps and fish.

Mussels and oysters

Two Belgian studies found microplastics in mussels and oysters. Concentrations varied between 2.6 to 5.1 fibers/10 g of mussel (consumption mussels: 1.6-5.3 fibers per 10 g) 22. Another study - also in Belgium - found microplastics in the soft tissue of blue mussels and Japanese Oysters.


Rochman reported some of the first findings of plastic debris in fishes directly sold for human consumption, raising concerns regarding human health. Sixteen out of 64 fish from the Californian fish market (25%) were polluted. Most of the pollution (80%) consisted of fibers.


A Chinese study collected 15 brands of sea salts, lake salts and rock/well salts from supermarkets throughout China. The microplastics content was 550-681 particles/kg in sea salts, 43-364 particles/kg in lake salts and 7-204 particles/kg in rock/well salts. In sea salts, fragments and fibers were the prevalent types of particles. The most common microplastics were polyethylene terephthalate (PET or polyester). Table salt appeared to contain several types of plastic particles, a large majority being fibers and small fragments (94%). The plastics, together with the toxic chemicals and heavy metals are possibly harmful to human health and a risk to food safety. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends consuming less than 5 grams of salt per day. Based on The World Health Organization. (WHO) consumption recommendation, we could be ingesting 1000 microplastic particles per person per year from table salt alone.

Microplastics are a pollution problem because they can be mistaken for food by marine life both big and small. They can interrupt normal feeding and digestion processes and leach chemicals such as colorants and other additives. In addition, plastic bits can attract and carry around persistent pollutants such as pesticides and flame retardants that adsorb on their surfaces [10].

A study out of the University of Exeter, in which crabs were given food contaminated with Micro fibers found that they altered animals' behavior. The crabs ate less food overall, suggesting stunted growth over time. The polypropylene was also broken down and transformed into smaller pieces, creating a greater surface area for chemical transmission. (Plastics leach chemicals such as Bisphenol A – BPA – as they degrade). Mason said her concern is not necessarily with the plastic fibers themselves, but with their ability to absorb persistent organic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and to concentrate them in animals' tissues [11].

Measures to control synthetic micro fiber pollution [1,7]

One of its recommendations in the report commissioned by the UK government is to reduce plastic pollution in the sea by preventing it from entering the sea, by increasing the use of biodegradable plastics, and, potentially, public awareness campaigns about marine protection to address what it calls “the out of sight, out of mind” challenge [3]. The problem of synthetic microfibre pollution is complex and of a considerable scale. There is no quick and easy fix. We can stop using synthetic materials for clothing, but as the current market share is already 63% this is not that easy or realistic. Furthermore, switching from synthetic materials to organic materials comes with other substantial environmental costs.

Awareness raising about the microfibre problem

The first step is raising awareness about the microfibre problem. The general public, but also professionals from the fashion industry and policymakers, are not aware. Consumers are not asking for non-microfibreshedding clothing and companies don't use microfibre release criteria in the design and production chain. Policies to avoid microfibre release into the environment are lacking.

By changing the washing behavior, consumers can already mitigate the number of Micro fibers they send down the drain. MERMAIDS research has shown that by washing on a low temperature, using liquid detergent instead of washing powder, using a softener and washing with a full load, the microfibre loss during the washing process is decreased.

Use already available solutions

There are already different solutions available today that help to mitigate the problem of microfibre release into the environment. The initiatives come from environmental minded, grass roots entrepreneurs. We promote these solutions as they contribute to solving the problem of microfibre release into the environment. All solutions listed below agreed to have their innovations tested for their efficiency.

Guppy Friend Washing Bag

The GUPPY FRIEND washing bag from Langbrett filters out Micro fibers that are released from textiles during washing. The producers claim that the fabric bag, made of a specially designed microfilter material, captures 99% of fibers released in the washing process. GUPPY FRIEND is a start-up based in Germany, Berlin. The goal is to reduce plastics and prevent micro waste pollution entering the world's rivers and oceans. In addition to the GUPPY FRIEND washing machine bag, Langbrett is also developing a filter for washbasins, for household and commercial use as well as restraint devices for floating debris.

When the bag is removed from the washer at the end of a cycle, the fiber – visible against the white mesh – can be removed by hand and disposed of. Tests show that the bag remains functional and intact after hundreds of washings.

Cora Ball

The Cora Ball is the first microfibre laundry ball. The Cora Ball was designed by a team of ocean scientists, educators and environmental protectors at the Rozalia Project, as a human-scale, consumer solution. Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, Cora Ball is moving forward with production and expected to launch direct sales in the USA with other countries to follow.

MERMAIDS Recommendations

DESIGN: The MERMAIDS research identified different critical parameters that have a strong impact on microplastics release during the washing process. These parameters are summarized below:

  • Fiber length: the shorter the fibers, the higher the probability to migrate to the yarn surface and increasing their hairiness and their pilling. As a consequence increasing their release during the laundry process.
  • Yarn twist: the yarn resistance and elasticity increase with the twist. More compact yarns are achieved with higher twist values.
  • Linear density (yarn count): The number of Micro fibers released will increase with the yarn count due to a larger amount of fibers per cross section.
  • Fabric density: a higher number of yarns per unit length will result in a tighter structure with lower probability to fiber release.
  • Textile auxiliaries: provide physical protection of fibers against abrasion/reduction of coefficient of friction (fiber-fiber, fiber-detergent) during laundry.

Indications show that the way a yarn is designed has a big impact on the breaking/degrading of the yarn into smaller micro- and nanoparticles. Yarn producers and clothing companies can use these parameters in their design to create yarn and textiles that release less microfibers during the washing process. Pre-sale washing also seems promising. MERMAIDS research showed that during the first wash significantly more Micro fibers are released. A possible option is to carry out a first controlled washing of fabrics (capturing the Micro fibers released during this first washing) before putting them on sale.

Detergents and washing conditions: The research activities carried out during the MEMRMAIDS project also studied the influence of detergents and washing conditions on the microplastic release. Several trials were performed, eventually pointing out that

  • powder detergents, higher pH of the washing liquor and the usage of powder oxidizing agents favor the microfibre release;
  • softener or special detergents (for delicate and synthetic fabrics) reduce the release;
  • washing conditions such as high temperature, long washing time and strong mechanical actions, favor the release of Micro fibers from the fabrics.


During the MERMAIDS research, different coatings were tested on different yarn types and materials. Firstly, commercial textile auxiliaries were tested and applied to fabrics. The results of this experimental phase showed that finishing treatments based on silicon emulsions and acrylic resins were able to reduce the amount of Micro fibers released during washing processes. Then, further researches were carried out developing coatings based on two biopolymers deriving from natural sources chitosan and pectin. Both finishing treatments based on chitosan and pectin, showed promising results but they still need optimization and further experimental activities.

Fashion industry can and should make the difference

  • Adopt the recommendations from the EU Life+ MERMAIDS research project
  • Join the microfibre taskforce to tackle the microfibre issue
  • Publicly support Ocean Clean Wash by stating the importance of a solutions for the emerging problem of microfibre release into the environment
  • Test your own clothes on microfibre release
  • Adopt maximum microfibre release targets

Water less washing [11]

Another solution may lie with waterless washing machines, one of which is being developed by Colorado-based Tersus Solutions. Tersus, with funding from Patagonia, has developed a completely waterless washing machine in which textiles are washed in pressurized carbon dioxide.


To date, there is no international law regulating micro fibre release from textile products. However, microfibre pollution is raising international concern about the volumes of synthetic garments that are made by many retailers and brands. The first step to solve the issue of microfibre is to raise awareness. The problem of microfibre pollution has various solutions that can greatly decrease the amount of microplastic entering the environment. Until everyone does their part to cut back the problem of plastic pollution. There is need to raise the concern and bring laws for regulating release of microfibre.


  1. Ganesh Lamichhane, Analysis of Micro fibers in waste water from washing machines, Metropolia University of Applied Sciences , Environmental Engineering , Thesis , 19th January 2018
  2. https://brenmicroplastics.weebly.com/project-findings.html
  3. http://sportstextiles.com/fullitem.aspx?id=147625
  4. Sutton, R., et al. , Microplastic contamination in the San Francisco Bay, California, USA, Marine Pollution Bulletin (2016), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2016.05.077
  5. https://www.patagonia.com/blog/2017/02/an-update-on-microfibre-pollution/
  6. https://oceanconservancy.org/blog/2018/01/16/collaboration-microfibre-pollution/
  7. Microfibre release from clothes after washing: Hard facts, figures and promising solutions , Position Paper, by MERMAIDS Consortium Plastic Soup Foundation , May 2017, Position-Paper.Microfiber-release-from-clothes-after-washing.PSF_.pdf
  8. Emily Hunt and Anna Wood , Small Plastic, Quite Drastic: Microfibre Pollution in the Great Lakes, http://environmentaldefence.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Anna-Wood-and-Emily-Hunt.pdf
  9. https://www.ispo.com/en/trends/microfibre-pollution-latest-topic-sustainability
  10. https://cen.acs.org/articles/95/i2/great-lint-migration.html
  11. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jun/20/Micro fibres

Author Details

Mrinal Choudhari Wool Research Association, Kolshet Road, Thane