New scientific study analyzes environmental impact of microplastic and natural fibers

New scientific study analyzes environmental impact of microplastic and natural fibers

March 25, 2019
Marcia González

Natural fibers more prevalent in samples taken by researchers than microplastic fibers, study shows

Researchers from the University of Nottingham have found a much higher percentage of ‘natural’ fibers than microplastic fibers in freshwater and atmospheric samples taken in the UK.

The team involved believe the findings, which were released ahead of World Water Day on 22 March 2019, raised the question as to whether we know enough about the environmental threat of some of the plastic alternatives that we are turning to in order to help save the planet.

Over a 12-month period, experts from the University’s School of Geography and the Faculty of Engineering Food, Water, Waste Research Group, collected 223 samples from 10 sites in the UK – from the River Trent, the River Leen and the River Soar and four roofs from the University’s UK teaching campuses – and found that ‘natural’ textile fibers represented more than 93% of the textile fiber population measured.

Microplastic textile fibers, such as polyester and nylon, were absent from 82.8% of samples, whereas ‘natural’ textile fibers were absent from just 9.7% of samples.

The results of the project are published in the journal Science of the Total Environment in a scientific paper called Freshwater and airborne textile fibre populations are dominated by ‘natural’, not microplastic, fibres.

Microplastic pollution has garnered a great deal of scientific, political and media attention in recent years, leading to widespread concern. As the impact of plastic and microplastic pollution has grown, many people and companies have made a considerable effort to minimize the amount of plastic they use in their day-to-day lives.

For some, this has included an increase in the use of plastic alternatives, such as ‘natural’ fibers including cotton and wool, the environmental impacts of which are not always considered and are rarely raised in the debate revolving around plastic pollution.

The potential role of natural textile fibers such as cotton and wool as an environmental pollutant has been speculated by some environmental scientists, but there has been a general consensus that their biodegradability reduces their environmental threat (in comparison to that of plastic).

However, ‘natural’ textile fibers are the product of multiple potentially hazardous processes and are inherently ‘unnatural’. For example, the commercial production of cotton fibers requires large quantities of water, pesticides and herbicides and the wastewaters of the textile industry have also been long recognized as sources of chemical pollutants.

While these risks remain poorly understood, this new research from the University of Nottingham has found high concentrations of so-called ‘natural’ fibers in samples of river water and atmospheric deposition.

“One of the most prevalent forms of plastic pollution – and one that has been widely reported in the media – is synthetic textile fibers such as polyester, nylon and acrylic,” said Tom Stanton, lead researcher on the study and Papplewick Pumping Station Water Education Trust Scholar. “These fibers are made from plastic polymers and enter the environment in a number of ways, but most infamously in washing machine effluent. Concern over this emission of microplastic pollution has led some to favor clothing made from natural fibers such as cotton and wool.

“However, while they may not be plastic, ‘natural’ textile fibers are far from a solution to the textile industry’s contribution to plastic pollution. The production of cotton is incredibly water intensive and the methods used to process natural fibers often introduce a myriad of harmful chemicals into waters used for bathing and drinking. Moreover, the processing of natural fibers is often carried out in dangerous, exploitative working conditions.”

“As our research shows, there is a high percentage of natural fibers in our water – and we don’t really understand what impact this might have on the environment,” Stanton continued. “What do we really know about the alternatives we are using in our efforts to curb plastic pollution? Much more needs to be done, before we can confidently say which of the alternatives available to us are the best for our planet.”

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