The first thing you think of reading the word “microplastics” is to those very small pieces of plastic material that derive from bottles, containers or bags that abandoned in the environment end up in our seas, polluting them and damaging the fish and creatures that populate them.
Often, however, it is not known that much of the plastic found in our waters comes from our homes instead. Or rather, from the washing machines with which we do the laundry every day and from all those synthetic fabrics that release some microfibers into the drain pipes with which they were made, due to the mechanical stress of washing and the chemical action detergents that promote detachment.
To give an example, recent studies have shown that synthetic clothing contributes about 35% of the global release of “primary” microplastics, those that arrive already fragmented into small pieces in our seas and oceans. Thus earning the first place among the main sources of pollution in the marine environment.
A realistic figure if you consider that synthetic fibers represent almost 60% of the global annual consumption of fibers used by the textile industry, which in the clothing sector corresponds to about 69.7 mega tons of fibers and that all over the world are used over 840 million household washing machines.
Despite this, there is good news: to save our planet from the invasion of microplastics we must not give up using textiles produced with synthetic fibers. But to start making more informed choices, which start primarily from the knowledge of what we wear and how we use it. Promoting a sustainable and ethical approach also in the field of fashion and sport.
Synthetic fibers, but which pollute more?
Synthetic textiles – those that contain nylon, polyester or acrylic, for example – are not all the same and therefore they behave differently from each other when used and washed.
An interesting Italian study conducted by the Institute for polymers, composites and biomaterials (Ipcb) of the National Research Council (Cnr), published in 2019 on Scientific Reports (Nature), has in fact allowed us to understand how the plastic particles present in the fibers in our clothes they can detach from the fabrics during washing, causing pollution of our seas.
Cnr experts have discovered that the concentration of microplastics released from each garment at the end of washing varies from 124 to 308 milligrams per kilogram of washed fabric, but that some of these lose more microfibers than others. It also emerged that fabrics with long and twisted fibers, such as those produced in 100% polyester, release at each wash a quantity of plastic particles that can reach up to 1.1000.000 microfibres, while those that contain “recycled” polyester they behave differently, leaving less fiber in the water, about 640,000.
It is therefore easy to understand how the intrinsic characteristics of a fabric can make the difference – such as the type of filaments with which the yarns are made and their twist – together with their derivation – we think of those reused or recreated following sustainable production processes and innovators that refer to a circular economy approach.
From social responsibility to sustainable production
There are many responsible actions that we can take to reduce microplastic pollution while washing our clothes. Research conducted by Newcastle University in collaboration with Procter & Gamble and published in Environmental Science and Technology in 2019 has highlighted how garments produced with synthetic fibers release a greater quantity of plastic microfibres during a “delicate” washing in the washing machine compared to a cycle standard.
Other analyzes, on the other hand, highlight the importance of washing synthetic textiles by enclosing them in bags of filtering fabric capable of reducing the release of microfibres into the water, or how it is preferable to use liquid detergents compared to those in powder, which for their abrasive properties can facilitate the detachment of fibers during washing. And so on.
The data collected by the research of the Cnr, however, must make us reflect on another fundamental aspect: to really help the environment, in addition to putting into practice behavior models that always preserve nature, it is important to revolutionize the way we approach a textile, in which we choose and buy it. Because in addition to filling our wardrobe and our days, each of our garments can become an expression of a precise ethical choice and revolutionize the world.
We are helped by all those technological and process innovations that today allow manufacturers to create innovative synthetic yarns, to obtain high quality products that meet the tastes and needs of consumers while maintaining a low environmental impact.
Synthetic but eco-friendly fabrics
In line with the findings of the study published in Nature, to reduce “home” pollution caused by the washing of synthetic clothes in our washing machines, a virtuous choice can be to purchase products with recycled synthetic fibers. Like those made with yarns from industrial waste or from products that are used and then re-processed thanks to the production processes of dyeing and finishing that are as sustainable as possible and compatible with the protection of nature and workers.
To these are added the synthetic fabrics capable of degrading quickly – a bit like natural ones – and which therefore produce less waste. This feature is called “accelerated biodegradability” and distinguishes all those textiles that deteriorate more quickly than normal synthetic fibers, without producing toxic substances.
In the case of fabrics dedicated to sports activities for which the comfort offered by a garment can never be separated from its high technical qualities, a response can be the use of mixed yarns, which manage to combine characteristics of breathability and pleasantness in a single product to the touch typical of natural fibers, such as wool, with high performance, as elasticity and durability typical of synthetic fibers.
Synthetics, therefore, but only if sustainable. Because to try all together to defend the environment you have to choose what you are wearing consciously, fueling a new way of consuming and producing.
We need to re-think in a sustainable way the design of the fabrics that make up our clothes. Making and using yarns that are less polluting our land, offering those who buy them the opportunity to wear not only a good garment but a product that respects precise values and a new philosophy of life.
This is also #greenperforming.