Most of us have seen scenarios of turtles stuck in a net or birds or whales full of plastic waste. In media there is a big focus on saying no to plastic straws and shopping bags in order to reduce the amount of plastic waste ending up in the ocean.
However, there is another danger, that may be invisible for us - plastic microfibers from textiles, which represent around 1/3 of all micro-plastic in the ocean (Hubbub).
What is microfibers?
Every fabric sheds small pieces of fibers which are called microfibers. It was found that a single fleece jacket could release as many as 250,000 plastic fibers per wash (Mermaid Consortium, Pirc et al., 2016). Microfibers can be natural (such as cotton, hemp, etc.) or synthetic and thereby categorised as microplastic (such as polyester, acrylic, etc.).
The synthetic microfibers - microplastic - have a more negative effect on the environment as they take up to thousands of years to degrade (Trash Travels, Ocean Conservancy’s 2010 report). Washing clothes or just wearing it contaminates water bodies and even the air by releasing microfibers. They travel from washing machines to the ocean and can hereby enter the food chain, harming plankton and fish along the way and through these - they also end up in humans. However, they are not only contained in seafood such as fish and mussels (MERMAIDS consortium) but also in products like table salt and honey (Almroth, 2017).
This figure shows the circle of microfibers impact on environment and humans:
We must be aware that there is not only physical but also a chemical impact, since the textiles are often treated using toxic chemicals (Henry et al., 2018). The industry is using more than 8000 chemicals in various processes of textile manufacture including dyeing, printing and water proofing. This toxic treatment of the fabrics, makes the microfibers even more "dangerous" and thereby cause a major threat to the environments that the microfibers are released into.
The industry therefore plays an important role in reducing this threat and simple steps such as minimizing their use of toxic chemicals to treat the clothes - is a great start. Another interesting thing they can do, is to conduct a controlled pre-wash of their clothes, since researches show a significant decrease in microfiber release within the first initial washes (Sillanpaa and Sainio, 2017, Almroth, 2017).
What can we do about it?
Luckily, there are some actions all of us can take in order to minimize the release of microfibers, here are some examples:
• Choosing clothing made of high-quality fabrics (check the labels and prioritize non-toxic and natural over synthetic and fleece)
• Avoid buying chemically treated fabric
• Wash your clothes less (only when necessary)
• Let companies know that you care - e.g. about the chemicals used in your clothing and demand transparency about this
• Using products which help to catch microfibers before they are rinsed down the washing machine drain, such as a microfiber catching devices (like the gubby bag or the cora ball) or a microfiber washing machine filter (like filtrol).
What we do at Wair
At Wair the concern for microplastic release has played a big role in all phases of our product development. From designing the shoes to choosing the materials. Have you noticed that a lot of companies are using recyced ocean plastic in everything from shirts to shoes? As you can see in this video, this is not the way forward - since these will just continue to contribute to the microplastic problem. Instead we are trying to stay away from plastic materials all together. It has definitely shown to be a challenge, since we are using textile waste - and here it is not as easy to require specific properties. We have to work with the textile waste streams that are available to us - but within these, we have chosen the fabrics that will shed less microfibers. For the sneakers we are prioritizing high quality textile waste which shed less and we are trying to use mainly natural materials such as cotton - which can be found in denim and canvas fabrics. The good thing with using used textiles, is that they have already been washed multiple times, which means that we won't need to conduct a controlled pre-wash.
The fashion industry has definitely had a huge impact on the environment and the impact is only getting bigger every day. If the fashion industry continues on it's current path, it will consume a quarter of the world's annual carbon budget by 2050. We need to stop this, and although, some companies are stepping up and becoming more environmentally friendly, we as consumers, must choose our clothes responsibly. Check the labels and be aware of what impact one piece of clothing can have on the world and also on your own well-being. So lets start this changes right now!
Written by Magda, Olga and Lili