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Microfibres - how big of a problem is it? Part one
Episode 11st July 2022 • The Global Challenges Podcast • Leeds Institute of Textiles and Colour
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Listen to the very first instalment of the Global Challenges Podcast, hosted by the Leeds Institute of Textiles and Colour. In this episode, we will be looking at the global environmental issue of microfibers.

Our first episode is hosted by Dr Mark Sumner(lecturer in sustainable fashion at the University of Leeds) with guests:

Kelly Sheridan (Head of Research The Microfibre Consortium)   

Mark Taylor (Lecturer in sportswear and sustainable fashion at the University of Leeds)

Alice Hazelhurst PhD Researcher at the University of Leeds)


Mark Sumner: Hello and welcome to the very first instalment of the global challenges podcast, hosted by the Leeds Institute of textiles and colour. Otherwise known as LITAC which is a new research Institute at the University of Leeds that is primarily focused on researching the global challenges in fashion textiles and colour industries.

The research of the Institute is very varied. Some of the work we do is developing new solutions, such as new materials and fabrics for clothing and high performance technical textiles for multiple industrial healthcare and consumer product applications. Other research areas include fashion, psychology and attitudes and how color can affect wellbeing. To carry out this research. The Institute works with businesses, government, and other academics from across the world. And we're striving together to get the right solutions that will ultimately benefit everyone.

If you would be interested in working with us, please take a look at the show notes below for more information about LITAC.

So we've created this podcast series to shine, a light on some of the research that's happening here at LITAC, and to hopefully provide some insights into what we can collectively do to help the pressing challenges that we're all facing.

These podcasts are not designed to be academic podcasts, because what we want to do break down some of these big challenges and provide practical solutions that hopefully you'll all find useful. We'll be sharing the podcast recordings every month, looking at different challenges in the textile of colour and fashion industries.

You'll be able to play and download these podcasts from wherever you usually listen to your podcasts. So make sure to follow and subscribe, to keep up to date with the latest episode and in this first podcast we're gonna be covering the issue of microfibers

Do we really understand where they come from, the impact that they have and what sort of things that we can be thinking about doing to minimize the potential issues that are associated. These tiny little particles that seem to leech into the ocean.

My name's Dr. Mark Sumner. I'm a lecturer in sustainable fashion at the University of Leeds in the school of design. And I'll be chairing today's podcast. During today's podcast, we're going to hear from three experts who are going to be talking about microfibers from their perspective.

Hi am Dr. Kelly Sheridan. I am head of research at the microfiber consortium and also senior lecturer at north Umbria University.

Hi, I'm Alice Hazel list. I'm a PhD researcher at the University of Leeds

Hi, I'm Mark Taylor. I teach sportswear and sustainable fashion at the University of Leeds

So it's a great pleasure to have all three of you here today to talk about microfibers. And I guess the starting point really is trying to understand what exactly microfibers are and why they're becoming so important in today's dialogue around sustainability and impact on ecosystems. I'm just wondering Kelly, from your perspective, How would you best define microfibers and why they are such an important part of the environmental discussion at the moment?

Kelly Sheriden: I think it's a really good question. What are microfibers? Because there's quite a lot of confusion surrounding the term, the issue. If I put it in a nutshell, essentially they are tiny fibers that are released from both natural and synthetic clothing items, both during manufacturing when we're just wearing them.

But in terms of a technical perspective, a microfiber has a very defined term within the industry. It's a synthetic fiber that is one den or Detex with a diameter of smaller than 10. Micrometers. I think that plays into some of the confusion because from a technical perspective, from what suppliers understand a microfiber is a specific term and it's linked to a synthetic or plastic fiber, but actually microfibers are released from all types of clothing.

When we talk about microfibers, in the wider term it's important, For, for listeners to understand it. Within that context, there are any smallfragmentst of, fiber that can be lost from a clothing just by wearing it or washing it. Or indeed, as I mentioned earlier, when it's being manufactured, Because these fibers are so, so small, they're so easily lost, and that means that they are able to pollute our environment readily, whether that's being lost through the wash.

So when you put your clothes in the washing machine, the fibers are released from the clothes they're washed down the drain into the lakes in the oceans. But also just by walking around wearing clothing that can lose fibers. They're being lost into the air. And there are then pathways to the oceans, through the air and of course inhalation.

And these are some areas that we're still yet to quite understand, but the impact of that is these fibers are polluting our oceans and aquatic life. Humans they've been found to be present in drinking water, for example. We know that they have been found in fish, in mammals, in birds. So they now pose a real risk, both in terms of their physical impact, but also in terms of their toxicological impact.

So to what you're saying there Kelly is that although these fibers are really small, it's the fact that they are really small is potentially their biggest risk. And also the fact that they can act as a carrier for, different chemicals that can get into, the environment as well.

Kelly Sheriden - Yeah. They're quite easily to see if you have a microscope, but most people don't walk around with microscopes. So , it's a bit of an unseen issue. Equally. I think one of the reasons why it has grabbed the public's attention is because they can understand it from a consumer perspective. They know when they put their clothes in the tumble dryer, that lots of fluff comes off them. They know, the fibers, when they're being their clothes are being washed, they go down the drain. Although they are small and that is having a, an impact. In the environment because of the damage that they can cause to, to small Marine life and other wildlife, you are absolutely right about those toxicological impacts because lots of chemicals are added to fibers and garments during the manufacturer phase, both in terms of, for performance reasons, but also to give them colour and colours are made of dyes are made of often synthetic dyes. As they break down that poses a further toxicological risk to the environment.

Mark Sumner: Thanks, Kelly really interesting that what we're starting to get fearful now is the actual challenge of what these micro fibers can do. But I guess and of course, what you've talked about there is very much microfibers coming from domestic laundry of clothing. And I'm wondering Mark, from your perspective, in terms of the work that you've done, looking at microfibers, why do you think there's such a focus on domestic laundry?

As a source for, for microfibers bearing in mind that we know that microfibers actually can come from all sorts of different sources beyond domestic laundry.

Mark Taylor: So I think historically people were finding bits of plastic around the ocean and this may remember when micro plastics became an, an issue when they were trying to get them removed from cosmetics and the like, and researchers around the world whilst looking for these plastics, started to find what clearly looked like fibers as well. And so they were then looking for the source of these fibers and quite quickly stumbled across what seems to be the obvious answer, which is it's coming off clothes. How is it coming off clothes? Well from washing I mean, at the time, I don't think they were sure teams around the world, mainly North America and the South of England started to do experiments with washing machines and, and were identifying fibers that they were discovering.

So that set them thinking that this must be a major contributor to the plastic pollution in the in the ocean, but they missed out on some obvious things at the time Kelly touched on some of them, you know, we all know that tumble dryers release fibers, because we all have to clear those filters. What about the ones that we don't take out of the filter? Where do they go? And if you've got an older tumble dryer, they almost certainly got of that hose that you hang out of the window.

Kelly also mentioned when we wear our clothes, they're subjected to sunlight, which contains ultraviolet, that weakens the fibers. Fibers are likely to come off as we're moving around and flexing and bending the clothes, which results in fibers, breaking. And often if you sat in the right place and you look up at the, in the air around you, you're likely to see fibers floating around. If the sunlight's just right, and they obviously didn't come out of a washing machine. They've come from some other source. So there's lots of other places they could come from. I mean, we already know that some of the, the fibrous debris that's being found is coming from car tires.

There's fishing ropes and fishing nets. All sorts of sources for fibrous type material to end up in the sea. But, you know, I think it's quite clear to understand why people initially blame laundry and, and people are starting to realize that that laundry, although it may be a contributor, isn't the major contributor to these fibers in the,

Mark Sumner: So we've got this, challenge then that microfibers can be coming from many different sources, including laundry. And obviously that's a focus area for a lot of work that's going but clearly there is this challenge that microfibers can come from lots different places.

So maybe we need to be thinking about how can we actually measure microfibers in a different way or the quantity of microfibers and, and Alice your research at the school of design is, is looking at that particular subject. So what is the best way to measure the, of microfibers in the environment? Do you think?

Alice Hazelhurst: Yeah, it's a good question. There's a lot of estimates out there in terms of you know, microfibers, particularly from laundering. But depending on which studies you look at, the estimates can range from, a few thousand fibers released every wash up. Several millions of fibers, per wash.

The challenge that we've seen to date has been a lot around differences in test methodologies used between different studies which has led to quite a big discrepancy between the findings. A lot of the earlier studies. Looked at collecting fibers from regular domestic washing machines, which, you know, as we've said is an, an obvious first place to start really, but there is a lot of downsides to that approach from just a scientific standpoint domestic washing machines are quite unreliable in the sense that you don't get a good control over the settings and of the wash. So things like the temperature and the duration that can be subtle changes, even when you've set your machine to the same program. So it becomes really difficult to repeat experiments and get the same results.

From a practical perspective using domestic washing machines uses large amounts, liters, and liters of water every time. So that's not ideal when we're testing and trying to quantify these things either. So the other option is smaller scale lab test, which is how we've done our testing. Using equipment that has been specifically designed for textile testing and designed to simulate that laundering process, but on a much smaller scale. So the two benefits is you're getting much better control. You can more precisely set all the conditions of the test. But you're also able to capture and contain all of the water from that test in using small canisters for the testing.

So everything that's come out of the fabric in the wash is retained and we can do a lot of analysis. So that's something that we Leeds and working with the microfiber consortium we thought was really important quite early on in our research together to define that test method and set some parameters.

Then the intention being that across the industry, we can start using the same method. And that will help us better understand the differences between different fabrics, because we've taken out other variables, but also then, you know, help us reach better, more reliable quantification estimates as we build up that data

Mark Sumner: Thanks Alice. So the washing machine conditions, temperature duration, and we know from other research that , the amount of clothing in a washing machine can also have an impact, but you're also suggesting that, you know, there's some other factors in there around different types of fabrics. So, there's a whole raft of complex issues that you're looking at there to try and be able to get to that point of quantify. I mean, do you think we will ever be able to quantify micro fiber? Does the level of micro fibers coming outta a, of a washing machine?

Alice Hazelhurst: I think it's, a big ask and as Kelly and Mark have both touched on you know, maybe we can reach a pretty good estimate from laundering, but that's not the only sourc because we're dealing with such small fibers. There's always a high chance that we're missing some of it when we're counting and estimating.

I know that's can be an issue if you're, you know, sort of just looking at filtering samples from the ocean or from a lake, for example you're reliant on the equipment that you have to be able to capture everything. So there is always a chance that you're gonna be missing something. A true complete estimate is gonna be a big ask, but hopefully as we improve test methods, we can, we can get a, a much better estimate at least.

Kelly Sheriden: I think to pick up on something that you mentioned earlier, Alice the importance of having a test methodology that is applicable across the range that we can really understand those root causes of, fiber loss from fabrics. And I think that's one of the important part of your research and what you're doing based on the TMC test method that's being developed.

With the University of Leeds and TMC and the EOG that has aligned the industry in how we can test fabrics and that data that we look at in terms of collecting from a number of different signatories of TMC, including the fabrics that you are testing, where we can look right across. The whole range of garments, regardless of what they're made from or how they're made to try and gain that understanding.

Mark Sumner: So essentially what you're saying there, is that, there's been lots of progress in understanding micro fibers, but there's still a lot more that needs to be done. And, I guess a question, for everyone else on today's podcast, do you think that we really understand the micro fibers issues? Well enough for us to be able to know what the critical issues are, and then to be able to identify what the potential solutions are going to be.

Kelly Sheriden: I think the problem is really complex. It's a real challenge. Understanding the root cause of fiber fragmentation or loss of fibers from textiles is the real key to stopping the problem. But the complexity of the fashion industry in terms of how close are designed, the types of fibers that they are made from is super, super complex. And trying to unpick that in order to understand what variables drive that, that loss of fibers from textiles, I think is the, the real key to developing and understanding of, that root cause of it, of the problem. And I think if we can understand that, then we can feed that back right in through the design phase.

Alice Hazelhurst: It's really a, a complex issue. And it's something that we've found through our testing is just the complexity as maybe even more than we originally expected. There's some factors that we expected to have a large influence. Maybe we've seen to be less important than we originally expected, but things like the fiber composition will have an impact on how likely the fiber is to fragment. Also the yawn structure, how loosely or tightly the yarn is twisted can impact the likelihood for those fibers to become released.

Mark Taylor: I mean, it's true, isn't it? That we often find that certain natural fibers release more fibers in laundry than synthetic fibers. And I suppose in a way that's to be expected because, you know, synthetic fibers are often infinitely long. So that becomes very hard for them to twist, get it from a fabric.

Whereas natural fibers tend to be what we call short staples. So they're much shorter, much harder to bind into the, the yarns. And so come out during the mechanical action of the laundry.

Mark Sumner: So what you're hinting at there, Mark is this, idea that we really do need to understand the structure of textile products in terms of the fabric, the yarn and the materials, and that will allow us to have a much better understanding of whether they're more likely to release micro fibers into the environment and this idea that natural fibers.

In a perverse way, almost so more likely to be released into the environment than synthetic fibers, just because of the, the way that those synthetic fibers differ from the, the natural fiber

Mark Taylor: Exactly. Yeah. And, and I think, you know, experiments, I've done myself and, and results I've seen from the work we've done at Leeds. Definitely back that up that synthetic fibers tend to shed less fibers and significantly less fibers than natural fibers. .

A recent study of sediments from the Mediterranean ocean found that there was seven and a half times more cellulose based fibers than polyester fibers and burning mind that polyester is, is manufactured in much greater volumes.

It does make you wonder how there can be so much accumulation of cellulose.

Mark Sumner: Celluloses is a basis for, for many of the natural fibers that we have, you know, cotton is made of celluloses, and there is a very small proportion of manmade fibers that are solos.

But that 7% that you are talking about is going to be mostly what we call natural fibers. But of course natural fibers are good. Aren't they don't pose any risks to, to the environment. Do they?

Mark Taylor: Yeah. I mean, it, it does seem obvious that natural fibers will bio grid in the Marine environment. And when I first got involved in this research several years ago, now, I, I said something similar in a.

In front of an audience of Marine biologists and was quickly corrected and told that in their experience, these things, they're not edible by by natural creatures and they don't appear to biodegrade. And the research on Marine litter does appear to back this up, you know, half as much cotton is used every year to make garments as polyester, but there there's seven and a half times.

Cotton in or silos, which is probably from cotton in the ocean. So it must be accumulating, which makes you think seriously about whether it's actually a biodegrading. And there's a very interesting paper from a few years ago now from a Marine archeology perspective where they'd found a, a shipwreck in the middle of a lot of the Atlantic.

It had been there for over a hundred years and it still had perfectly preserved cotton waste coats. So those cotton west coast haven't biodegraded at all in a hundred years

Mark Sumner: I guess the challenge with that, and this is one of those other questions that hasn't been resolved with the microfiber research is what's the impact of these fibers if they're not biodegrading, because we do know that Marine life, when it consumes fibers, It's also a physical effect of their, them consuming those fibers that, you know, actually sort of block their digestive system.

So they’re full, but they don't have any nutrition being from stuff's stomachs. So there’s some question marks about, the impact of some of these natural fibers that isn't resolved as yet.

Kelly Sheridan: On that point, I think there's a misconception, the cotton, because it is grown naturally. When it is part of a garment or a clothing item that it remains natural. And that's not the case in the processing that happens in order for a cotton fiber to be taken from a cotton plant, processed into a garment, the structure has already changed. So it's no longer natural. Then we have the addition of chemicals that are added to garments to change the finish of the, of the feel of the garment.

In terms of the. The cotton fibers breaking down, whether that's in an aquatic environment, which chemically is very different from a soil environment. If fibers are caught up through wastewater treatment, Plant in sludge and then sludge is then put on the soil. The fibers are still gonna be there.

And as they break down, if indeed they do break down, they're also releasing chemicals to the earth, which is subsequently having an impact on other life. And there've been studies, on that effects on worms, for example. So I think that. The issue of natural and the whole argument around natural versus synthetic actually misses the point. And the point is that microfibers, regardless of their origin or an environmental pollution issue that is a big challenge for us to deal.

Mark Sumner: So what we're hearing then is that the release of microfibers into the environment, whether it's to the air or to the oceans is a complex process. And just because we have a cotton t-shirt doesn't necessarily mean that that cotton t-shirt is, is going to.

Mark Sumner: Are there some practical guidelines that we could be talking about to, for example, industry and to government, or even , to consumers in terms of their approach to how they might want to deal with washing their garments, Alice, in terms of your research so far let's say if you were in charge of government, what sort of things would you be thinking about that we need to do

Alice Hazelhurst: There's a few. Things that as consumers you can do, if there is something that you're concerned about, I mean, the main thing would be to wash full washing loads. We do know that increased agitation can increase the amount of microfibers and fiber damage. So by making sure you filled your washing load, you're reducing some of that friction.

It is obviously a balance you don't want to stuff your machine so full that nothing gets clean. But making sure that you have got a full load in there could help. There are some products available that aim at capturing some of these fibers, which could be a good option for you as a consumer. You just have to be considerate of how then you are disposing of any fibers that have been caught.

Because obviously as we've said, they can still reach the environment by other roots from. Industry perspective. There's been a few studies that have suggested that pre-wash fabrics at the industry stage can remove some of these fibers before they reach consumers. Which is an interesting point.

It's come of a lot of studies finding that fabrics are releasing the most microfibers in that first wash. And as they've repeated, washing fewer fibers have been released, but this really misses out a point that even if you're doing these pre washes at industry, those fibers are still going somewhere.

Mark Sumner: Kelly, just following on from that we have seen in some parts of the world, government's talking about taking action against microfibers. So for example, people talked about potentially banning. Polyester from being used in garments, they've talked about potentially enforcing the use of filters on washing machines and bearing in mind all this conversation we've just been having today about the fact that it's not just about polyester, could about be a whole range of other five materials sources coming from not just domestic laundry, but other sources as well.

What's your view on some of these ideas about legislation are they going in the right direction? Would you have other suggestions in terms of what could or should be around micro fibers from a government level?

Kelly Sheriden: I think there's a misconception around the whole subject. And that is unfortunately driving legislation in my view, in the wrong way. The legislation that's coming in to ensure filters are put on onto washing machines, again, that can capture microfibers, but what's going happen to them, there's no law that then says that the consumer must dispose of them in the right way. If that filter is then just taken to a sink and, and the consumer washes them down the drain, we're back to the same problem.

The Bann of polyester again, misses the issue of the, other types of fibers that we're talking about, that are problem too. The production of cotton, from an environmental perspective is not great either.

And for me, although there, are mitigating solutions that we can use and consumers can use, which of course will help the problem. It really get into that, that root cause that is going to make , the most fundamental different, otherwise, we're just moving the problem from one place to another.

I think the work that you are doing along with the data that we're collecting at TMC is really gonna help to drive that. Fundamentally what it comes down to is just further research that's required and funding that support the wider issue

I think somehow we need to try and get that message out there. And for people who have the purse strings, have a better knowledge of where the problem is so that we can put the funds in place in order to really understand the complexities of the issue as we've discussed them today.

Mark Sumner: So what we've listened to today from Kelly and Mark and Alice is this idea that micro fibers, we don't real feel understanding of the, of micros going the environment, mainly because micro fibers are coming, not just from a domestic laundry, but coming from lots of other places. We also don't really know the impact that those micro fibers are having on the environment, are polyester fibers worse for the environment than cotton fibers.

What we need is more research. We need to be able to do more research, to understand the mechanisms for those fibers coming out of fabrics. We need to do more research and understanding different sources of micro fibers, and then more research is needed to really understand in real life conditions, the impact that those micro fibers may be having on the environment on sea life and potentially , to humans.

And of course, in terms of all of this, we need to be able to understand that complexity, to be in a position to actually start to come up with solutions. . We do know that there are some solutions out there that people can start to be thinking about in particular domestic laundry. We know that washing our clothes less, we know that loading the washing machine in the right way can reduce the release of microfibers to the environment.

We hope over the next few years we're gonna see more and more of that research. And with the projects that TMC are funding and the projects that I got ongoing at the university of Leeds, including analysis PhD, we're gonna start to get more of those answers.

Alice Hazelhurst: As you said, hopefully my research will start to shed light on at least some of these issues that we've discussed today. If you're interested we'll also link the paper that we wrote defining the test method that is, has been established at the university of Leeds with TMC.

Mark Taylor: Well, thanks for inviting us along, Mark. It's it's been an entertaining session. And can I also say that there will be some links to some of the papers that we've mentioned in this discussion also in the show notes.

Kelly Sheriden: Thank you very much for having me today. It's been a pleasure to talk about the microfiber issue and for anybody listening, who wants to learn more about the microfiber consortium, a link to the website will be in the program notes.

Mark Sumner: So in this podcast, we've looked at the problem of micro fibers, the complexity, the challenges in terms of measuring the challenges in terms of understanding their impact. And also really trying to get a grip on where these microfibers are actually coming from.

However we do know enough about micro fighters to start thinking about some of the solutions. For the next lead tech podcast, we'll be joined by professor Mohamed Taif from the Institute who is a professor in sustainable textile manufacturing, who will talk us through the research that he's doing to overcome some of the challenges that we've talked about today.

So don't forget to follow and subscribe wherever you listen to this podcast. So you don't miss the next episode. Thank you to everyone for listening to today's podcast.



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