The fashion industry is facing serious challenges that will reshape the system in the coming years. Being sustainable is no longer an alternative, but an imperative. Changes must affect all processes and everyone involved. Some are already underway and seek to solve pressing problems, others simply tint appearances green, while there are still some effects that are not even part of the agenda. Microfibers (a subset of microplastics) enter this last drawer, which, no matter how small, is still a negligible matter.
“Microfibers are already everywhere,” says the report just published by the NGO Forum for the Future, Tackling Microfibres at Source (addressing microfibers at source). “They are in our food, in our water, and even in the air we breathe. It is worrying that the latest research indicates that they are detrimental to human and marine health, although the extent of their impact has not been fully understood,” says the publication, produced with the support of UNDP, the UN development agency. , through the Ocean Innovation Challenge. Fashion must assume its responsibility: it is estimated that 35% of all the microplastics that end up in the oceans come from the microfibers of the textile.
No one is spared by being part of this problem. Any garment gives off microfibers even before being made. In fabric production processes, for example, it is common to use various washes that gradually release these particles, which continue to be shed until after the purchase, each time the consumer washes the garments. Not even natural fibers are spared: although when talking about microplastics one thinks directly of artificially produced materials such as polyester, the NGO recalls that natural fibers also release microfibers that can be equally harmful when they accumulate in the environment, especially when those Natural fabrics are subjected to the same chemical processes as artificial ones. Which one is worse? “Cotton and polyester are two of the most popular materials today (in In 2021, polyester accounted for 54% of global fabric production and cotton for 22%). There is a lot of interest from the industry in comparing what these two materials contaminate. While understanding how each contributes to the problem is necessary, simplistic comparisons are risky and distract from looking for real solutions to address the problem. In summary. It would be like comparing apples to oranges.”
There is much to be done for both consumers and producers: “We estimate that the textile manufacturing phase (before consumption) releases 1.2 million metric tons per year of microfibers into the environment, a magnitude similar to that released by the use phase of consumer (washing)”. That means that for every 500 shirts manufactured, microfibers with a volume equivalent to that of a full shirt are released.
Solutions at home require changes in consumer habits. There are more and more washing machines that include filters to prevent the discharge of these microfibers into the water, but there are also simpler systems. The bags guppy friend type minimize the impact of each wash by simply tucking the garments inside. But changing global behavior is not easy, which is why activists have long been demanding that governments get involved. They ask for improvements in the regulation, for example in the wastewater treatment systems (a request raised by all kinds of activists) or in the city water purification systems. France already regulates in this sense and two years ago it approved a law that will impose that all new washing machines incorporate a filter from 2025.
For every 500 T-shirts manufactured, microfibers with a volume equivalent to that of a full T-shirt are released.
When dealing with the involvement of manufacturers, everything becomes even more complex. After 21 months of work, Forum for the future has published a guide that can help the industry to start the work. The main difficulties are the same as those faced by other problems: improving technological processes is expensive and nobody wants to assume that cost. “The ecosystem is vast. A normal fashion brand can have between 1,000 and 2,000 different suppliers”. Some providers that in many cases will only adopt a new technology if it is viable, “that is, if everyone in the chain is willing to share the cost”. The publication points out some fundamental points from which to start, such as installing robust waste water treatment systems and points to the most polluting processes: all those that involve the use of hot water, for example in many of the tinted.
More research is needed and more awareness about the problem posed by microfibers, but “neither brands nor manufacturers can solve it alone; With this work we facilitate a broad approach to face it and to encourage different actors to investigate and understand the complexity of the microfiber challenge”.
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