Clothing industry must use fewer harmful fibres

Published: 29 January 2015

In itself, installing a filter in washing machines to remove microplastics from clothing is a good step. But it is not enough. To tackle the root of the problem, the clothing industry must use fewer harmful fibres. Dick Vethaak, a specialist in microplastics at Deltares and IVM-VU University of Amsterdam, put forward this argument recently on the Dutch radio programme Vroege Vogels.

Microplastics come mainly from synthetic clothing

Synthetic clothing in particular uses fibres containing microplastics. They come loose easily during washing, entering waste water and carrying on to rivers and the sea. Approximately 200,000 harmful fibres are released in each litre of washing water. That amounts to millions in every wash. Research has shown that wastewater treatment comes up short in terms of removing microplastics.

Clothing industry must use fewer harmful fibres

Other measures needed alongside filter

Last week saw the official launch of the Mermaids project, which is focusing on the development of a special filter that can be installed on any washing machine to remove most of the harmful fibres from the water. Dick Vethaak is happy with this development – it is something he has been advocating for some time – but he believes that other steps are required to really solve the problem.


Action at source needed

‘The filter is a quick fix, not a long-term solution. We can only really deal with the problem by tackling it at source,’ he believes. ‘That means that the clothing industry will have to use more sustainable materials. For example, fibres that aren’t released as easily or that contain less harmful substances.’

Dick emphasises that we should also be aware that harmful fibres from clothing enter our waters not just through washing water, but also through the air. ‘Just ironing a fleece jumper releases the fibres. They get picked up by rainwater and, in that way, end up passing through the groundwater into the sea.’

Chemical substances enter humans and animals

Ongoing research is required to establish a picture of the exact damage that microplastics in the sea can lead to, and the extent of that damage. Dick Vethaak: ‘They can, for example, get into the tissues of fish or shellfish when these animals swallow them. They then proceed up the food chain, and get onto our plates. They won’t make you ill straightaway, but further research is needed. These are actually chemical substances that are entering our bodies.’