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Microplastic pollution in aquatic environments from washing synthetic textiles

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Abstract

Textile washing is a major contributor to the accumulation of microplastics in the environment. While the use of plastics in textiles positively impacts the industry’s safety, hygiene, and innovation, there are detrimental effects resulting from the subsequent release of microplastics into the environment, much of which contaminate the aquatic environment. Current research on the microplastics problem already establishes relationships between certain parameters and the tendency and rate of microplastics release. Relating factors such as washing method, number of washes, and processing of textile to the rate of release of microplastics can help guide policies and actions towards the management of microplastics released from textiles washing. This article examines several aspects of the issue of microplastics in the environment with a particular focus on microplastics originating from the textiles industry. Their small size, lower ease of detection, and tendencies to absorb harmful microbes and metals make them more of threat to aquatic environments than macroplastics. The environmental and health impacts are explored as well as other issues,such as the route from textiles to the environment. Finally, this paper examines the current global status on microplastics, understanding future perspectives and identifying recommendations.
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Article
Microplastic pollution in aquatic environments from washing synthetic textiles
Shameem Kazmi 1
1Affiliation 1; Shameem Kazmi, 4th Floor, 18 St. Cross Street, Holborn, London, EC1N 8UN, UK
Correspondence: s.kazmi@cjbs.net
Citation: Kazmi, S 2021, Microplastic pollution in aquatic environments from washing synthetic textiles, Kresearch
ORCID-0000-0002-3835-1813
Published: 4th March 2021
Abstract: Textile washing is a major contributor to the accumulation of microplastics in the environment.
While the use of plastics in textiles positively impacts the industry’s safety, hygiene, and innovation, there are
detrimental effects resulting from the subsequent release of microplastics into the environment, much of
which contaminate the aquatic environment. Current research on the microplastics problem already
establishes relationships between certain parameters and the tendency and rate of microplastics release.
Relating factors such as washing method, number of washes, and processing of textile to the rate of release of
microplastics can help guide policies and actions towards the management of microplastics released from
textiles washing. This article examines several aspects of the issue of microplastics in the environment with a
particular focus on microplastics originating from the textiles industry. Their small size, lower ease of
detection, and tendencies to absorb harmful microbes and metals make them more of threat to aquatic
environments than macroplastics. The environmental and health impacts are explored as well as other
issues,such as the route from textiles to the environment. Finally, this paper examines the current global status
on microplastics, understanding future perspectives and identifying recommendations.
Keywords: microplastics; plastic pollution; synthetic textiles; macroplastics; wastewater
1. Introduction
Plastics have become one of the most important classes of materials ever discovered. They provide
convenience, comfort, durability, and are extremely practical. Combined with their low cost of production and
quick processing, this makes plastics very attractive to almost any industry. In 2019, global plastic production
reached 368 million tonnes [1], an increase from 350 million produced in 2015 [2]. From the construction
industry to footwear, medical, and personal care productsplastics have become ubiquitous in modern life.
The textile industry saw a remarkable development with the introduction of fabrics that incorporated plastics,
with polyester being the most widely used in this industry. T-shirts, socks, leggings, tights, undergarments,
and many more, are some examples of clothing and garments that might be otherwise non-existent in its
current forms. Plastics like nylon and polyester add to stretch, fit, style, and comfort, which have all become
increasingly important to the consumer. However, these additions come at a heavy cost to the environment in
the long-term. The environmental impact is already seen in the form of terrestrial and aquatic plastic
pollution. And microplastics add a new challenge to the existing issue of plastic pollution.
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2. Microplastics
2.1 Microplastics Defined
The term microplastics refers to micron-sized individual plastic particles. They are either prepared to
be used in this form or occur as a result of the breakdown of larger plastics into micron-sized plastic particles.
This breakdown is different from biodegradation. In the microplastic form, the plastic still retains its chemical
identity. For example, polyethylene microplastics remain a particle of polyethylene. Unlike biodegraded or
chemically degraded polyethylene, this is no longer polyethylene but has been broken down by
microorganisms or pyrolysis into other smaller compounds like carbon, water, and hydrogen. Microplastics
predominantly range in size between 100 and 800 microns and come in different shapes and from different
types of plastics [3]. Other sources define microplastics as plastics less than 2.5 mm in radius [4,5].
Whereas plastic bottles, plastic bags, and other larger forms of plastics can be easily picked off, sieved, or
separated from other materials in the waste stream, microplastics pose a much bigger challenge in their
removal. Most commonly used plastics have a density lower or not much higher than water, as most
consumer plastics have densities between 0.85 and 1.41 g/cm3 [6]. Even in larger forms, some plastics float on
water. Polyesters such as PET, for example, has a density of 1.38 g/cm3, while polypropylene has a density of
0.92 g/cm3, and polystyrene has a density of 0.909 g/cm3. All of these are not too far from the density of
water at 1 g/cm3. Combined with the buoyancy factors and surface forces, when broken down into
microplastics, these plastics remain suspended in water. Whereas other nonplastic materials, such as clay,
might settle, microplastics do not. Furthermore, plastics are generally hydrophobic, as they repel water and
are not likely to bond with water and form aggregates that become heavier and settle. This causes the
microparticles to be well-dispersed in water.
2.2 Types of Microplastics
Microplastics can be classified in different ways. These can be based on size, origin, shape, or plastic
type. Based on origin, they can be categorized as primary or secondary microplastics. Primary microplastics
are purpose-made to serve as microplastics. Examples include those used in cosmetics and personal care
products such as toothpaste. Secondary microplastics occur as a result of fragmentation and degradation of
macroplastics or larger plastic products. This breakdown is often accelerated by exposure to UV radiation or
physical and chemical stress in aquatic environments. Microplastics from textiles occur as a result of plastic
fibres in textiles being fragmented and shed. These mainly come in the form of microfibres [7].
Microplastics can also be classified according by plastic type. For example, polyethylene microbeads are used
in scrubs or polyester microplastics from textiles. The size of microparticles also varies, ranging from the
lower end of the micron scales of just a few micrometres in diameter to those on the higher end around 500
micrometres. Sieves are used to separate these microparticles into different sizes for particle size analysis.
Microplastics can come in different shapes such as spheres, fibres, and other regular and irregular shapes. This
depends on the sources and origin of the microplastics. For example, microplastic from textiles is likely to be
microfibres from fragmented fibres.
Many types of plastics exist. However, the most common commodity plastics are listed as type 1 to 6, with 7
referring to other types of plastics. Plastic types 1 to 6 being PET (polyethylene terephthalate), HDPE (high
density polyethylene), PVC (polyvinyl chloride), LDPE (low density polyethylene), PP (polypropylene), and
PS (polystyrene), respectively. The type of plastic that forms the microplastic has a significant impact on the
behaviour of the microplastic, such as how they are dispersed in water or how they interact with other water
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components like microbes and chemicals. For instance, a plastic-like polyethylene consists mainly of carbon
and hydrogen groups. This tends to be more hydrophobic than plastic-like nylon made-up of amide and
carbonyl groups. These functional groups allow nylon to interact with water better than plastic-like
polyethylene. Therefore, the type of plastics that the microplastics are made of has a significant effect on their
impact on the environment and how they can be processed. However, microplastics that contaminate the
ocean and other open water bodies originate from a myriad of sources and types. An all-encompassing
strategy is needed to define microplastics into different types to study how to process the different types
separately. Currently, most microplastics studies do not cover the separation of microplastics into different
types after recovering from the environment.
2.3 Environmental and Health Impact of Microplastics
Due to their size , microplastics pose a different dimension of challenge in addition to the general
problem of plastic pollution. Thus, it has become necessary to treat the problem of microplastic as a separate
issue from plastic pollution. Studies have shown that microplastics make their way into the waterways and
oceans [3] If necessary precautions are not taken, microplastics eventually make their way into freshwater and
drinking water.
Already, there is a problem of large plastic bodies getting into the bellies of water animals, some with fatal
consequences to the animal [8]Microplastics pose similar problems, except the consequences are less obvious
and more difficult to measure. Nonetheless, they are not likely to be less dire. Many aquatic organisms depend
on tiny, microscopic organisms known as phytoplankton and zooplankton as their universal food source.
From small fish to large whales, phytoplankton are a key part of the food chain in the aquatic ecosystem. Due
to size similarities with phytoplankton, organisms that feed on this food source tend to also take in the
inedible microplastics [8]. These microplastics move on make their way up the food chain and can eventually
be found in human food. One study estimated that humans may be consuming anywhere from 39,000 to
52,000 microplastics every year. With added estimates of how much microplastic might be inhaled, the
number rises to 74,000 [28]. Yet, more research is required to determine the extent of the impact of
contaminated fish consumption on humans and predatory wildlife.
Even where microplastics are considered chemically inert, their small size and indigestible characteristics may
lead to blockages and impairment in tissue and organs when consumed by animals [8]. In open bodies of
water, the microplastics’ presence can alter the diffusion of light and other physical properties of water, which
has a direct impact on the aquatic ecosystem. On land, it was found that discarded microplastics remain for at
least 15 years [9].
Additionally, microplastics can serve as a surface for harmful microorganisms to attach, particularly biofilms
[10]. Further, they can absorb metals from the environment. Thus, besides the chemical and physical hazards
posed to the living organisms and environment, they can also aid in the growth of harmful microorganisms.
Though it is not yet fully understood how the ingestion of microplastics entirely affects aquatic life, it has been
successfully established that organic matter such as biofilm attached to microplastics can transfer to aquatic
organisms that ingest them [11].
2.4 Plastics in Synthetic Textiles
Plastics are used in many types of textiles to improve certain qualities such as water resistance,
stretch, fit, texture, and appearance. In some cases, they also make for more affordable fabrics. Plastics have
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been long used in the modern textile industry [12]. They are applied as coatings on fabrics, blended into other
materials such as cotton, or the plastic itself gets woven into fibres. Techniques such as wet spinning and melt
spinning are used to create different forms of plastic fibres that get converted into textiles. These textiles find
use as garments, bags, medical protective gear, swimwear, and sporting gear, among many other applications.
Indeed, the use of plastics in the textiles industry has played a significant role in improving quality of life,
healthcare, and professional safety.
Textiles such as polyester, polyurethane, and nylon are examples for sources of microplastic pollutants.
Although microplastics are also present in products like facial scrubs and toothpaste, more microplastics are
released from textile washing than these other sources. Microplastics from washing textiles are likely directed
straight to the sewer, unlike other sources where the path to the ocean might be more obscure. Polyester is one
of the most widely used fabrics today next to cotton. An estimated 46 million tonnes of polyester is supplied
annually in the world [13]. A study reported that in one wash, up to 210,000 microparticles of polyester are
released [5], although lower values have been reported in other studies. For example, one study reported over
1900 fibres released per wash [14]. This amount is said to reduce as the fabric goes through more washes.
Thus, new fabrics release more microplastics than reused fabrics. The amount of microplastics reported by
different research groups varies depending on the methods used and conditions of testing. When measured by
weight around 0.033 to 0.3% microplastics are released from polyester textiles on the first wash [14].
For example, it is estimated that every year in Finland around 1.54 x 10^19 kg of microplastics particles are
released from home washing machines [5]. Plus, there is an increased use of synthetic textiles globally. This is
due to a combination of several factors such as population rises and hence demand rise, lower cost of synthetic
textiles compared to natural ones like cotton amongst other reasons. Since textiles are a major contributor to
microplastics in the environment, this means if not addressed the number of microplastics in the environment
will increase.
2.5 Factors that Affect Microplastics Release from Textiles
The likelihood of microplastics released from fabric or the rate at which it is released are affected by
several factors. Understanding the relationship between these factors and microplastics release from textiles,
particularly during washing, can be used as a means to manage or prevent microplastics release from textiles.
Although this is a relatively newly discovered challenge, from existing research findings we can make some
deductions as to what factors influence the release of microplastics during the washing of textiles. These
factors are as follows:
Structure of the fabric (woven, nonwoven, etc.)
Washing methods and conditions (time, temperature, speed, manual or machine method, intensity, spin,
water volume, etc.)
Washing load
Washing aids and chemicals (soaps, detergent, bleach, fabric conditioners, etc.)
Studies have shown that out of these factors, the most influencing factor on microparticle release is detergent
application [3]Where detergent is used during washing, there is an increased rate of release of microparticles
from the fabric. This is regardless of whether a liquid or powder detergent was used, and in which quantity.
Additionally, detergents on have a separate environmental impact aside from their effect on microparticle
release from textiles. A study showed that the number of microplastics released from polyester fabric
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increased from 0.025 mg fibre/gram textile where detergent was not used to 0.1 mg fibre/gram textile where
detergent was used [3].
The structure of the fabric also needs to be considered. Findings from one study show that release from woven
polyester plastics is higher than that from knitted polyester plastics or woven polypropylene fabrics [15]. The
same study found that the number of microplastics released from textile can be reduced by up to 35% with the
use of softeners and bleaches. Around 6,000,000 microplastics particles were released from a 5 kg polyester
fabric washing load. Longer wash time, higher temperatures, and higher washing intensity result in an
increased release of microplastics from the fabric. Heavy loading of fabrics can increase the release of
microplastics. This is thought to be a result of increased abrasion between fabrics and the surface of the
machine[15].
The release of microplastics from textiles during washing also depends on the method of production of the
fabric. Factors such as if it was woven or knitted, size of the fibres and yarns, and how the fabric was cut. The
smaller the yarns the more likely it that microparticles will be shed from the garment. Similarly cutting with
scissors rather than ultrasound or Lazer during production makes microplastics release more likely, so does
brushing [7].
3. Microplastics in Aquatic Environments
Of the estimated 150 million tons of plastic present in the world's oceans [16], around 0.1 to 1.5% of
this is said to be in the form of microplastics [4]. There are several routes through which microplastics can get
into the environment. Although the term microplastics is often used generally, they comprise different types
of plastics. This means a given sample of microplastics can be a diverse blend of different chemical
compositions. The types of microplastics found in different depths of aquatic environments also vary. Factors
such as biofilm formation, type of plastic, and shape affect the layer of the aquatic water body the
microplastics settle in. One study has shown that microplastics are predominantly found in aquatic
environments that are close to urbanized and well-populated locations [17]. These microplastics originate
from plastics in wastewater and land that end up in water bodies and get degraded into microplastics over
time. Examples are microplastics from wearing of tires, plastic bottles discarded on land, plastic parts of shoes,
plastics used in agricultural mulch, and significantly plastics from the washing of textiles [18].
There have been several studies of different water bodies to establish the number of microparticles present in
the aquatic environment. For example, one study in Germany reported on average 0.0007 microplastic
particles per litre of water from groundwater [19]. Another study in China reported 4.7 particles per litre of
water from three Gorges reservoir [20], while a study in the US reported on average 0.00026 particles per litre
of water in Western Lake Superior. Microplastics are present in the oceans, seas, rivers, lakes, beaches, and
other water bodies [5]. These are in the form of primary and secondary microplastics. From treated and
untreated wastewater intentionally directed into water bodies to microplastics occurring from fragmentation
and degradation of microplastics.
Microplastics vary in size from just a few microns to hundreds of microns. Much of the studies have reported
microparticles released in wastewater that are in the size range of 20 microns. There is a need for more data on
microplastics that are at the lower end of the micron size range.
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3.1 The Microplastics’ Path from Textiles into Aquatic Environments
There are several pathways by which microplastics get into the waste stream. From textiles, this is
predominantly through washing. This is regarded as an essential activity that takes place on a large scale
across the globe. In more technologically advanced countries this is primarily done with washing machines.
This way, much of the wastewater goes through a sewage treatment process that removes some but not all of
the microplastics.
In less advanced countries, a good fraction of the laundry is done manually. There, washing water is released
directly into the ground, in rivers, canals, lagoons, or oceans. This happens daily on a large scale in both urban
and rural areas in developing countries. The microparticles released from these textiles washing make their
way into the aquatic environment more easily.
Examples of sewage treatment can be biological digestion, drying, or lime stabilization. The waste is then
deemed safe enough to be discarded into the environment, usually on land where residual contents can safely
degrade. Microplastics are generally non-biodegradable and eventually contaminate the aquatic environment
through run-offs during rainfall [21]. The water that feeds into the treatment plants also includes those from
industries, water from rainfall, and runoff from landfills, all of which contain secondary and primary
microplastics. These can be from industrially processed textiles or microplastics from discarded textiles.
Figure 1 shows images of different microplastic particles from collected runoffs from rainwater samples.
Figure 1. Measuring 5.2 mm by 5.3 mm, of a rainwater sample, after post-processing to identify all particles larger than 10 µm. The vast majority of
the particles are not plastic (black). The inserts show microplastic particles identified by spectral matching to different reference plastic types. (A)
Orange: PTFE (Teflon), (B) Green: Polyethylene terephthalate (polyester), (C) Red: Polyethylene, (D) Cyan: Polypropylene [27] .
When solids from wastewater treatment plants were analysed in one study in Ireland, it was found that a
significant amount of microplastics were present in the residue. These are residues from water treatment
plants that then get discarded on land. Some of these are agricultural land. Between 1,196 to 15,385
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microplastics particles were detected per kg of the dry weight of solids from the wastewater treatment plant
[21]. It was also shown that the treatment method can affect reducing the particle sizes further. In particular,
treatment with lime resulted in smaller microplastics particle size. It was hypothesized that the lime possibly
shears the microparticles causing particle size reduction. In the study, anaerobically digested sewage sludge
had lower microplastics content. Thus, microparticles can get released through the environment either by
directly discarded washing water or even after the water has gone through some treatment. The number of
microparticles can be reduced by choosing the right treatment method.
3.2 Current global status and efforts in addressing microplastics
The issue of microplastics from textile washing is a relatively new area of concern. The current
approach is to understand the mechanism and scale of the release of microplastics from textile washing, to
then implement measures to manage the emission. Studies are looking at the factors which contribute to the
release of microplastics from textiles during household machine washing [5,15]. At the other end, there are
also research efforts to evaluate the number of microplastics present in the aquatic environment [4,16]. While
other efforts are directed at establishing more effective and practical methods of removal of microplastics from
the waste stream [22]. Textile and garments companies, such as H&M, are increasingly contributing to the
global effort to tackle microplastics by funding research on this [7].
Currently, regulations on the textile industry, wastewater treatment, or municipal waste management do not
provide any provisions for the treatment of microplastics [21,23]. Yet, some methods for the treatment of
wastewater also remove microplastics. This is mostly coincidental rather than intended or directed. Some
regulations simply require some sort of treatment of the wastewater before being discarded into the
environment. Many of these treatments like anaerobic digest or lime sublimation do not remove microplastics.
The regulations on wastewater treatment also vary from country to country. However, the earth’s water
systems are linked. This means microplastics being discarded in one part of the world ultimately affects the
earth’s entire aquatic ecosystem.
Where there is efficient wastewater treatment, microplastics might not pose as much of a threat compared to
where there isn’t efficient wastewater treatment or collection systems. Textile wastewater treatment methods,
such as ultrafiltration and flotation, can effectively remove a significant amount of microplastics from
wastewater. The existing challenge is in the middle to low-income countries where enough resources are not
directed towards municipal and industrial wastewater treatment. This often leads to the release of sub
standardly treated or untreated wastewater into oceans and rivers [24,25]. It is estimated that around 65
million microplastic particles are released into the aquatic environment from one treatment plant studied [26].
Even where there is efficient wastewater treatment, no system is 100% efficient in practice. This means that the
release of microplastics into the environment is unavoidable. For as long as plastics get used in a current
manner and get discarded in a current manner, we can expect a further rise in the number of microplastics in
the environment. Nonetheless, efforts can be made to slow down the rate of release of microplastics into the
environment. This includes a detailed evaluation of the different sources, release mechanisms, and pathways.
Microplastics from the textiles industry is a key source of microplastics. Therefore, effective collection and
management of wastewater from textiles washing can have a significant impact in addressing the issue of
microplastic waste.
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The research into the release of microplastics from the washing of textiles can be implemented into data-based
policies in wastewater management towards reducing the release of microplastics into the aquatic
environment.
4. Future Perspectives and Recommendations
Looking ahead, there is a need to develop low-cost means for the treatment of wastewater from textile
washing to remove microplastics. In developing countries, where a large fraction of the washing is done
manually and water disposal from the laundry is not well managed, there needs to be improved infrastructure
to capture wastewater from textile washing. Since a significant fraction of microplastics in the ocean originates
from textile washing, addressing this will significantly impact the number of microplastics that in the ocean.
Studies on wastewater treatment show that solids from wastewater treatment using lime, thermal
dehydration, and biological digestion still contain over 4,000 microparticles per kg dry weight [21]. It is,
therefore, necessary to consider more advanced wastewater treatment techniques for the elimination of
microplastics. Efficient wastewater treatment methods, such as ultrafiltration, can remove microplastics from
wastewater to a large extent. However, in low-income countries where such infrastructure is limited, low-cost
wastewater treatment methods are required to prevent the release of microplastics into the ocean and other
aquatic environments. Alternative methods such as electrocoagulation are some of the available methods that
can be applied for low-cost wastewater treatment to improve the removal of microplastics [22].
With textile washing being a major contributor of microplastics to the environment [3], addressing the issue
now can potentially prevent the further accumulation of microplastic in the environment. This can further
impact human and wildlife health and the overall environment in the near future. As the textile industry
becomes more aware of the microplastics problem , measures taken by textile factories could include tests for
microparticle release as standard sustainable industry practices. A change in consumer behaviour can also
help reduce the accumulation of microplastics in the environment. Such behaviours include encouraging
buying of fabrics less prone to microplastic emission or using textile washing settings or techniques that
minimize the release of microplastics. According to one study, the first wash of a fabric releases more
microplastics than subsequent washes [5]. This adds more reason to promote reusing fabrics or simply using
textiles for longer to the consumer rather than buying new textile products.
As more becomes known about microplastics and their environmental impact, a review of regulations
governing waste management is inevitable. For instance, the current EU policy on sustainable waste
management encourages the application of sludge from treatment plants to agricultural land. Other
alternatives in this directive include incineration or application into landfills [23]. Considering that some of the
sewage sludge may contain microplastics from textile washing, it becomes necessary to review these policies.
Since microplastics do not biodegrade, treatment using anaerobic digestion or composting has no effect on
microplastic components in the waste stream. Thus, modifications to the policies may include the compulsory
treatment and test for microplastics removal before dumping treated waste.
The more difficult option is of course an industry that eliminates the use of plastics from textiles
manufacturing in the first place. This can have a complex impact on the environment and global resources as a
whole. Fabrics made of plastics like polyesters, acrylics, and nylon have come to play a significant role in the
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textiles and garment industry [12]. It is therefore important to fully understand the release of microplastics
from textiles in future research, which can identify appropriate measures to put in place to address the issue.
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