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Micro-Fibres: why we should be concerned, and how wool can help

Microfibres are in the news a lot these days. Here I look into the topic in more detail, as well as make some suggestions on what you can do in the short term to help the environment and reduce your microfibre output. Hint: The best solution is to wear natural fibres, and better still Armadillo Merino®.

What are micro-fibres?

Microfibres are tiny strands that make up textiles. When we say tiny, we mean tiny – a fifth of the width of human hair. They are found in synthetic (polyester) clothing, weaves and knits, fishing nets, mats, car interiors… pretty much everywhere. Think, anywhere where there is plastic or polyester.

These synthetic fabrics, from which 60% of all clothing on earth is made, have a big hidden problem: when they’re washed, they release tiny plastic bits — called microfibers — that flow down our drains,  through water treatment plants, and out into our rivers, lakes and oceans by the billions.

Eventually these microfibres make their way into the ocean, where they drift, are eaten by fish and birds, and collect in the natural eddies of the ocean. 

Microfibres - Photo: Rozalia Project

Does wool produce plastic microfibres?

No, as it is natural, and the fibres produced in the wash break down in waste water plants, in the same way your hair does. Wool is made of creatine as is your hair.

How bad is it?

The issue of microfibres is finding it's way into the tape water system, as well as the ocean. In a recent investigation by Orb Media, they found microfibres contamination in 83% of the tap water they sampled.  This was from tap water samples from more than a dozen nations. The US had the highest contamination rate, at 94%.  Lebanon and India had the next highest rates.

European nations had the lowest contamination rate, but this was still 72%. The average number of fibres found in each 500ml sample ranged from 4.8 in the US to 1.9 in Europe. 1

In another study by Rebolledo & van Franekeringestion, they found of plastic debris or entanglement in 44–50% of all seabirds, sea snakes, sea turtles (all species), penguins, seals, sea lions, manatees, sea otters, fish, crustaceans and half of all marine mammals. 2

We don't know what the effects to humans are of eating plastic-polluted food and drinking plastic contaminated water. We do know that in lab experiments where fish were fed toxics-laden plastics that those chemicals did migrate to the fish tissue and caused liver damage (pre-cancerous lesions) and hormonal issues that affect gender in the fish.  These effects were first observed by scientists from the University of California and San Diego State University, USA and published in Nature Scientific Reports3

More plastic than fish in the ocean

Microfibres are one component of a greater problem of plastic in the ocean. In the report, The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics, they estimated that at present there is 150 million tonnes of plastic in the ocean. They then analysed the flow of materials around the world and predicted that, given the projected growth in production, by 2050 oceans could contain more plastics than fish.4

How long have we known about micro-fibres, and how long have the big brands done nothing about it?

Since 2011. Dr Mark Anthony Browne, a senior research associate with the School of Biological Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of NSW, Australia. first blew the whistle on how our laundry is polluting the ocean. In 2011 he and co-researchers discovered that the source of most plastic pollution on coastal shores sampled across the world wasn't the fragments of plastic packaging or microbeads they had expected but fabric fibres from clothing and blankets, especially acrylic, nylon and polyester.

"We need a strong response from the textile and the appliance industries to produce better fabrics and washing machines and from governments to improve sewage treatment and support research into developing ways to reduce microfibre pollution."  Dr Mark Anthony Browne 5

How can wool help?

Wool is 100% biodegradable, meaning that wool will break down to its natural base elements and therefore not pollute the oceans and waterways. Consumers are increasingly concerned with what their products are made from and how it affects their environment. Natural materials like wool are favoured not only for its many attributes like softness, warmth and moisture control but is now being recognised for its renewable and biodegradable benefits. 

Merino wool - 800 x 300

What can you do?

  1. Wear garments made of natural fibres. The microfibres generated naturally break down. Wear more Armadillo Merino® for example.
  2. Wash your clothes less. Each time you wash your clothes they release microfibres. Wash them less, and less microfibres are released.
  3. Replace your top loading washing machine. If you have a top loading washing machine, replace it with a front loader. In a Patagonia study, they found top loading machines produced 7 times more microfibres than front loaders.
  4. Fill up your washing machine. Washing a full load results in less friction between the clothes and fewer fibres released.
  5. Use a colder wash setting. Higher temperature can damage clothes and release more fibres

There are various proposed long term solutions. These include

  • Dry washing
  • Retro fitting washing machines with a filter to catch microfibres.
  • Development of fabric applications to stop the microfibres
  • Upgrading wastewater treatment facilities, most of which are currently unable to filter out all microfibers. 

As you can see, these are all long term solutions, and in the short term, we suggest wearing more clothes made from natural fibres like wool, cotton and hemp, ideally Armadillo Merino, and washing your synthetic clothes less.

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2. Kühn, S., Bravo Rebolledo, E. & van Franeker, J. In Marine Anthropogenic Litter (eds Melanie Bergmann, Lars Gutow & Michael Klages ) Ch. 4, 75–116 (Springer International Publishing, 2015).

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