What Are Microfibers?

Plastic microfibers are very small thread-like fibers that can come from both natural and synthetic fabrics. Plastic microfibers have emerged as a relatively new area of study as researchers conduct various investigations such as the shedding of microfibers from synthetic fabrics during conventional clothes washing[1]. Like dust and many other kinds of small particles, microfibers have been found in the ocean, rivers, agricultural soils, marine and freshwater animals, as well as consumer products.

Microfiber Research

What is Being Done to Address Microfibers?

Experts are working to better pinpoint where microfibers come from, what they are made of, how much of them gets into the environment, and how people and animals interact with them. Stakeholders across sectors, including plastics makers, are collaborating in this work. Plastics makers are helping researchers better understand the products, materials, manufacturing processes, and life cycle phases that could contribute to microfibers in the environment. Scientists are focusing research on several key areas of microfiber study, including:

  • How microfibers enter and move through the environment
  • How microfibers breakdown in the environment
  • Whether microfibers have any effects on ecosystems, animals and human health
  • Whether products or materials can be designed to reduce microfiber pollution
  • Processes to filter or remove microfibers that have already entered the environment

Microfiber Solutions

In 2018 the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), working in collaboration with the European Outdoor Group and others, developed a “cross-industry roadmap” to coordinate its actions on microfibers. The roadmap is designed to drive the collection of data that is necessary to better understand the sources and causes of microfiber release and to implement appropriate solutions that are based on sound science. Additionally, several new products are available to help filter microfibers in washing machines and textile makers are developing innovative new fabrics with reduced shedding.

Sample microfiber next to grain of rice. Image courtesy of Rozalia Project.

Are Microfibers Toxic?

How Do Microfibers Effect the Environment?

We already know much about plastic materials. Many plastic materials are selected for use in the first place for their properties, performance, and safety. Plastics in contact with foods and beverages, and for medical devices and medical implants, have long been evaluated for safety by the FDA. One textbook sums it up by describing a plastic widely used in food contact and medical applications as a “relatively inert, nontoxic, and benign polymer.”[2]

Scientists are now taking a closer look at microplastics and microfibers in the environment. Based on what scientists know now, these materials are present but not hurting ecosystems, animals, or people.[3] In the meantime, research will continue to better understand whether microplastics or microfibers in the environment could present a health risk. Microplastics and microfibers might not be the same as bigger pieces of plastic. Scientists think about tiny particles or fibers of a material differently than big pieces. For example, we’d examine wood dust a little differently than big pieces of wood flooring, and tiny bits of glass differently than a glass windowpane. It might also make a difference whether a tiny speck of glass is shaped as a long fiber thread, a sharp shard, or a smooth round ball, and how small or big it is to understand whether there’s an environmental risk. Scientists are examining these kinds of questions.

How Do Microfibers Effect Humans?

We’re exposed to small particles of things everyday – like foods and cosmetics, for example, as well as sand, dirt, gravel, eyelashes, dust, and dust mites. But just because we find or detect a little particle of something in the environment doesn’t mean that it presents a health or environmental risk – it’s the starting point for further inquiry.

Once we know something is in the environment, we then need to answer questions, like:

  • How much of the substance is there?
  • What is it made of?
  • How does it interact with other substances?
  • What happens if it’s eaten or inhaled?

So, detecting particles is one thing; it’s a different set of questions whether and how these small particles might affect human health or ecosystems.

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[1] Hartline, Niko L., et al. “Microfiber Masses Recovered from Conventional Machine Washing of New or Aged Garments.” Environmental Science & Technology, vol. 50, no. 21, 2016, pp. 11532–11538., doi:10.1021/acs.est.6b03045.

[2] Mark, Hermann Francis. Encyclopedia of Polymer Science and Technology, Concise Third Edition. Interscience Publishers, 2007, 424.

[3] University of Eastern Finland. “Microplastics – a cause for concern.” ScienceDaily, July 19, 2016.

GESAMP

PlasticsEurope supports GESAMP’s initiative to undertake a review of current knowledge on the behaviour and fate of micro-plastics.

Mussels and lugworm study

Study on the occurrence and distribution of micro-plastics over the Belgian coast.

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