Microplastic from Textiles Detected on Shorelines

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Microplastics coming from textiles were detected in the water. Photo by Marty White

Microplastic from textiles

All the sites monitored in this study showed a contamination of microplastics; this confirms the global scale of the problem, and that it is not limited to a specific area. A higher level of pollution was observed for areas that were more densely populated; this indicates that microplastic release into the environment is connected to human activity.

The analyses of the samples from shorelines showed the presence of several microplastic species, whose origin could be linked to textile materials. The main microplastics detected were polyester (56%), acrylic (23%), polyethylene (6%), polypropylene (7%) and polyamide fibers (3 %).

Considering the effluents from sewage treatment plants, the composition was different, as the main microplastics were polyesters and polyamide (67 and 16 % respectively); the sources of these species, however, were still textile fabrics.

Washing clothes with a washing machine can realease microplastic in the environment. Photo by Anna_t

Washing Manmade Fabrics

To assess if microplastic from textiles was released into the sewage during their washing, a parallel series of experiments was performed. Several polyester fabrics were washed in a standard washing machine and the concentration of microplastic in the effluents from the washing was measured.

The results showed that a relatively high number of microplastic fibers was present in the effluents after each washing cycle. The amount of fibers released depended on the kind of fabric. For instance, the fibers released by a fleece was more than double those from a blanket. In all cases, however, more than 100 fibers per liter of discharged waters were detected.

Microplastic Pollution: Meaning of These Results

Mr. Phillip Crump, from the University of Plymouth, explains to Decoded Science the meaning and the implications of these results.

To solve the problem of microplastic pollution, it is important to have a deeper knowledge on where microplastic comes from. This study gave us some indications in this sense. It was the first time that washing machines were recognized as a source of microplastic in the environment; this was really a surprise. Our findings are even more important because we performed analyses in many different locations, our sampling area was very wide.

The next step will be to try to assess the damage that these microfibers can have on both humans and the environment. Risks are associated with the partial decomposition of these fibers into smaller molecules they are made of – examples can be vinyl chloride or acrylonitrile, both very toxic. The presence of other components on the fabrics (dyes, plasticizers) can also have a negative effect.

Sources

M.A. Browne et al. Accumulation of Microplastic on Shorelines Woldwide: Sources and Sinks. Environmental Science & Technology. 45, 9175-9179 (2011). Accessed February 4, 2012.

E.R. Graham et al. Deposit- and suspension-feeding sea cucumbers (Echinodermata) ingest plastic fragments. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology. 368(1), 22-29 (2009). Accessed February 4, 2012.

R.C. Thompson et al. Lost at Sea: Where Does All the Plastic Go? Science. 304(5672), 838 (2004). Accessed February 4, 2012.

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