CottonWorks provides resources to consumers. We tuned in to their recent webinar Cotton Biodegradability in Aquatic Environments, which focused on the growing threat of microfibers. Here’s what we learned:
What Are Microfibers?
According to The Story of Stuff, a microfiber is a tiny fragment of plastic that sheds during the washing machine cycle. Since microfibers are usually less than 5mm in size, they are an emerging pollutant that are very difficult to catch.
How Do They Get There?
Many factors can be taken into account when it comes to microfibers, like laundering (spinning and drying cycle) and the age of the garment. These microfibers make their way into wastewater treatment plants and septic systems, which are currently not capable of filtering the tiny particles out. From the wastewater treatment plants, microfibers can be transferred to waterways and soil.
Microfibers have sticky surfaces, making it easy for toxins to attach and adhere to other surfaces. Microfibers can be found in sea salts, bodies of waters (oceans, rivers, lakes), sediment, sewage sludge, arctic ice. Microfibers are ingested by sea life like oysters and fish. These organisms are eaten by larger fish, birds, and sea mammals. Which are then, consumed by some humans. Microplastics in our bodies? No thanks.
What Can We Do?
Microfibers are inevitable, but we have the ability to limit their emissions:
- Better filters in laundering machines to capture them
- Lower shedding rates in textiles
- Infrastructure changes to wastewater treatment plants to better mineralize the microfibers
Both natural and synthetic fibers release microfibers. However, in an experiment done by NC State University researchers (presented in this webinar by NCSU Ph.D student Marielis Zambrano), we learned something very interesting. While cotton may release more microfibers than its counterparts, they biodegrade almost completely, while the others do not. In the experiment, researchers tested a 50/50 cotton-poly blend and it was revealed that the only half to biodegrade was cotton!
As we mentioned earlier, microfibers are inevitable. However, we can rest easy knowing that cotton will not affect aquatic environments nearly as much as other fibers. The focus is now on updating wastewater treatment plant infrastructures and laundering machines to better catch microfibers.