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Microfibres: the plastic in clothes and how to control where it goes

The ocean is a soup of microplastics. Plastic litter such as drinks bottles, carrier bags, even old shoes are broken down by sunlight and wave action into fragments, and any pieces smaller than 5mm are known as microplastics. Eight million tonnes of waste plastic ends up in the sea each year from land and once plastic reaches the ocean, it acts like a sponge, absorbing nasty chemicals and heavy metals so once in the food chain it can be toxic.shutterstock_1505469257-1

Microplastic fibres or ‘microfibres’ are tiny threads of synthetic material, thinner than a human hair, that are now ubiquitous. They have been found in everything from sea salt and bottled water to tap water, honey and even seafood such as mussels. Once these tiny microfibres have leached into the environment, there’s no effective way of removing them so the emphasis must be on preventing them at source.

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But these synthetics don’t only cause problems once spent items are disposed of or littered. Every time we wash our synthetic clothes, tiny fragments are shed from our garments during the laundry cycle into the water system and beyond. In fact, the majority of school uniforms on the market are made from synthetics and these won’t ever completely biodegrade.

So at Kapes, we design our uniforms responsibly with a circular philosophy to reuse and recycle everything. Our schoolwear is made of organic cotton and our sportswear, some bags contain some recycled polyester and our swimwear is made from regenerated nylon, so we encourage every parent to purchase a clever and effective mesh Guppyfriend washing bag which catches the majority of any synthetic microfibres shed during a wash cycle.

UK scientists recently compared the efficiency of six fibre-catching devices, ranging from prototypes to commercially-available products including the Guppyfriend washing bag. They found that using these devices as part of the laundry process can dramatically reduce the amount of microscopic particles released into wastewater and potentially entering the marine environment – Guppyfriend reduced microfibres released by 54%. These measures are ideal for any items of clothing that are made of petroleum-based plastic materials such as polyester, acrylic or nylon.

“Fibres from clothing are among the key sources of microplastics, and companies are inventing ways which claim to reduce the amount of fibres which enter wastewater,” said the study’s lead author, Dr Imogen Napper, a marine biologist at the University of Plymouth who used a mesh to capture the fibres entering wastewater to test three in-drum devices and three external washing machine filters. “We wanted to see how effective they were both in catching fibres, but also stopping clothes from shedding them in the first place. Our results show there is a huge variety between the devices available, with some significantly reducing the number of fibres released.”

Napper and her team believe that there’s an ongoing need for scientists to collaborate with industry and policymakers to ensure improvements are made from the design stage right through to how clothes are washed. Professor Richard Thompson OBE, Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit, was co- author on the study. He added: “Some of the devices we tested can undoubtedly reduce the fibres generated through the laundry process, but perhaps the most overarching change would be to design garments to last longer and shed less fibres in the first place.”

Of course, it’s important to consider that when clothes made from synthetic materials are finally disposed of, they will also eventually break up into tiny microfibres. Even fabrics made from recycled plastics aren’t great for the planet if there’s no plan to keep re-using this resource in a more circular system. Plus we don’t want our high quality, sustainably-produced organic cotton schoolwear to end up in landfill once kids grow out of them. That’s why we have created a recommerce solution with a sustainable framework for reuse and recycling of uniforms so children can wear our eco-friendly uniforms again and again.