Fashion faux pas as microplastics are traced to synthetic textiles

A new report from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) is calling for major change in the fashion industry, as synthetic fibres from washed clothes are linked to ocean microplastics.


According to IMechE, 35 per cent of microplastics released into our oceans come from synthetic textiles, with a typical 5kg wash load of polyester fabrics producing six million microfibres. The report, Engineering Out Fashion Waste, urges the garment industry to invest in new environmentally-friendly materials, as well as to tackle the enormous waste problem the sector engenders. IMechE claims that three-fifths of all clothing is discarded within a year of being produced, either sent to landfill or incinerated.

“We need to build on existing industry initiatives and fundamentally rethink the way clothes are manufactured, right down to the fibres that are used,” said IMechE’s Aurelie Hulse, lead author of the report.

“Garments should be created so they don’t fall apart at the seams and so that they can be recycled after they have been worn for many years. Fabrics should be designed not to shed microfibres when washed and industry needs look at how efficiencies can be made in the cutting process, which currently sees 60bn m2 of cut-off material discarded on factory floors each year.”

Consumers and retailers also have a role to play. To reduce an item of clothing’ carbon footprint, people are encouraged to wash their clothes at a lower temperature, use mesh laundry bags to catch threads, use tumble dryers less often, and install filters on washing machine waste pipes. Water pollution and energy use from the fashion industry is significant. The report highlights that in 2015, the industry produced 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e), more than international flights and maritime shipping combined.

“The garment industry is one of many industries that has a threefold impact with emissions to air, water, and large amounts of waste produced for landfill and incineration,” said Dr Jenifer Baxter, head of Engineering at IMechE.

“This means that to begin to create a sustainable fashion industry we need to address all of these areas and engineers are producing solutions that range from greater efficiency in machinery and water use to new materials with reduced shedding. Given that it has been estimated that there are 20 new garments manufactured per person each year and that consumers are buying 60 per cent more than in 2000, these environmental implications must be addressed as a matter of urgency.”