Frédéric Van Houte
In December 2017, the European Man-Made Fibres Association (CIRFS), together with the European Textile and Apparel Confederation (Euratex), the International Association for Soaps, Detergents and Maintenance Products (AISE), the European Outdoor Group (EOG), and the Federation of European Sporting Goods Industry (FESI) signed an agreement (CIA: Cross Industry Agreement) to address the release of microplastic in the aquatic environment. The CIA initiative was acknowledged by the European Commission under the “Plastics Strategy” in January 2018.
The associations, representing the global value chain of garments and their associated maintenance, agreed that viable solutions need to be found to the release of microplastic into global waters during the entire lifecycle of textiles. It was recognized that a scientifically valid, harmonized test method was a pre-requisite to study possible options and explore policy measures to address the unintentional release at global level.
Value of a harmonized test method: The method should enable the collection and evaluation of data for a more rapid and comprehensive understanding of the challenge, to optimize research and promote action and innovation to address it. The aim was to allow for a simple and effective comparison of textile fabrics, adapted to all types and fabric structures and based on instrumentation commonly found in all textile testing laboratories. Multiple method parameters were reviewed and tested under various conditions to allow reproducibility. The basis was a test specimen subjected to an accelerated laundering under appropriate conditions of temperature, time and mechanical actions. Fiber loss was assessed gravimetrically to approximate it during domestic laundering. 10 laboratories were involved.
Thanks to the creation of the CIA, there have been a large number of significant academic publications and many industry discussions on textile fragments in the environment, emission routes and potential effects on bio-organisms. These have contributed considerably to the current knowledge.
It is important to note that “fiber fragmentation” has become the preferred term within the textile community. Indeed, there has been recurring confusion with the term “microfiber”, historically used to describe man-made fibers finer than 1 denier or dtex (diameter less than 1 µm), and fabrics made of these. The term “microplastic” which includes plastic fragments, particles or fibers with a diameter less than 5 mm is currently not an agreed legal definition.
Myths and facts: Microplastics in the environment originate from a wide number of sources, e.g. the degradation of plastic debris, tires, textiles etc. While some methods exist to characterize microplastics found in water, no globally harmonized test methods are available yet. Fiber fragmentation from textiles can originate both from synthetic and from natural materials. All textile materials experience fiber fragmentation, from apparel to home textiles and technical textiles. Likewise, fiber fragmentation can occur during all phases of the product’s life cycle from manufacturing to consumer use and end-of-life. It was thought to be a consequence both of laundering and the inability of washing machines and wastewater treatment plants (WWTP) to prevent these fragments from reaching the effluents.
Recent studies suggest the WWTP may be able to remove up to 97-99.9 % of synthetic textile fiber fragments from the wastewater. This could mean that home laundering may not be the predominant emission source. Similarly, current literature on fiber fragments in water (and air) suggests that natural textile fibers constitute a greater proportion than synthetic fibers.
Risks: The potential impact of fiber fragments on aquatic environments, marine life and human health is raising concern, with potential risk in the fiber as well as chemical additives on/in these. Available data are however still scarce. Scientists advising the European Commission (SAPEA) concluded that the best evidence suggests that microplastics and nanoplastics do not pose a wide risk to humans or the environment, except in small pockets. However, that evidence is limited, and the situation could change if pollution continues at the current rate . Therefore, research concludes that drawing meaningful conclusions on microplastics toxicity is premature. Additional research is therefore needed on ecotoxicological effects and the leaching of additive chemicals associated with microplastic fibers.
Outcome and next steps: Furthermore, an agreement on a harmonized test method was reached in September 2021, following a large stakeholder engagement. The next step is the collaboration with CEN to deliver an official standard, which will proceed, considering a use of the latter in the coming months. Also, the members of the CIA will intensively continue their research and information sharing efforts and gather more data to better understand fiber fragmentation to develop effective solutions to manage the phenomenon appropriately. This will be a pre-requisite before possible measures and policy action can be proposed. From the beginning, the aim has been to try and harmonize global methods on textile fiber shedding in order to be as effective as possible. Regular communication between all stakeholders, even beyond Europe, will continue.
 SAPEA report, https://www.sapea.info/topics/microplastics/
Frédéric Van Houte