The total amount of synthetic microfibres going into the environment as we wash the clothes is an impressive number. US scientists estimate it to be 5.6 million tonnes since we first started wearing those polyester and nylon garments in a big way in the 1950s.
Just over half this mass – 2.9 million tonnes – has likely ended up in our rivers and seas.That’s the equivalent of seven billion fleece jackets, the researchers say. We fret about water pollution but increasingly this synthetic ‘fluff’ issue is one that affects the land.
The University of California, Santa Barbara, team which did the calculations found that emission to the terrestrial environment has now overtaken that to water bodies – some 176,500 tonnes a year versus 167,000 tonnes, Jonathan Amos (BBC News) said.
Wastewater treatment works have become very good at catching the fibres lost from washing machines. The captured fibres, along with biosolid sludge, are then being applied to cropland or buried in landfills.
The industrial ecologist, working with a range of other experts, has previously totted up the total amount of virgin plastics ever produced (8.3 billion tonnes); and the annual flow of plastics into the oceans (roughly eight million tonnes a year) Roland Geyer, from UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management told BBC News.
The scientist said about 14% of all plastic is used to make synthetic fibres, principally for clothing. When those garments are washed, they will shed tiny strands that are much thinner than a human hair.
For its just-published report in the journal PLoS, the UCSB team tried to work out how much synthetic clothing had been produced in the past 65 years. Different methods (and detergents) will shed different amounts of fibres.
When the UCSB team ran its flow analysis on all these variables, the number that emerged for the total mass of synthetic microfibres emitted from apparel washing between 1950 and 2016 was 5.6 million tonnes.
In 1990, say the researchers, the global average stock of garments per capita was 8kg. By 2016 it was 26kg per head. The focus needs to be on emission prevention,” Bren School colleague and PLoS article lead author Jenna Gavigan said. These solutions include reducing use, engineering more efficient filters on washing machines, and developing better wastewater treatment.
Source: PLoS, BBC News